Sawant wins ... but socialist revolution dims in Seattle

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Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant

For supporters of socialist firebrand Kshama Sawant, last Tuesday was a night of triumph. Early ballot returns showed Sawant leading her opponent Pamela Banks by a margin of 52.6 to 47.1 percent, and ballots from last-minute voters were expected to push Sawant’s margin up. Her re-election was secured.

The decisive margin, which has since risen to 55.5 to 44.3 percent, was the product of grueling work. Phalanxes of volunteers knocked on doors, pamphleted festivalgoers, and rice-papered light poles. The result showed that Sawant is here to stay in District 3. But more quietly, it’s also a big disappointment for Sawant and her movement. Without the passage of Seattle Districts Now in 2013 — that is, if she'd had to run citywide -- Sawant probably would have lost on Tuesday.

I recognize that this is a startling claim, and it’s one I haven’t heard even whispers of since last week. However, the numbers clearly bear it out. In 2013, Sawant made up an 8 percentage point deficit to ultimately defeat incumbent Richard Conlin citywide, by a margin of 50.7 to 49 percent. It was perhaps the greatest electoral turnaround in Seattle history. Her performance this time around suggests it would have been hard to repeat.

First off, full disclosure: I work as a political consultant, and one of my clients was involved on the District 3 race in support of Pamela Banks. That said, almost anyone will attest that this is the first negative thing I’ve said about Sawant’s electoral performance all year, and possibly ever.

So: How, considering her solid win, is Sawant’s improved performance a disappointment? Keep in mind that Sawant’s new turf, District 3, draws most of its population from Capitol Hill and the Central District. These areas are strongholds for Sawant, with their younger, renter-heavy populations. In 2013, she defeated Conlin in what’s now District 3 by a decisive 58.3 to 41.4 percent, or a whopping 16.9 percentage points.

From here, the math is simple. In 2013, Sawant won citywide by 1.7 percentage points (that 50.7-49.0 percent result), helped by that 16.9 point margin in what is now District 3. In 2015, Sawant appears to have won District 3 by 11.2 percentage points. That’s a 5.7 point decline in District 3, considerably more than her 1.7 percent margin citywide in 2013. The decline in District 3 wouldn't be enough to lose the citywide election for her, but there's no reason to assume that her decline wouldn't have been similar, if not worse, elsewhere in the city.

Now, the complaint — and it’s a valid one — is that we’re comparing apples to oranges. Running citywide is very different than running in a district. True enough. But, if anything, the switch to a district race probably helped Sawant.

A citywide race stretches your budget, meaning that big-money candidates can spend fewer dollars per voter. In this case, though, Sawant was the big-money candidate. She and her supporting groups spent $419,000, where Banks and her supporters spent $330,000. A citywide race also stretches field operations thin. By all accounts, though, Sawant had a stellar door-to-door effort and high visibility. A district campaign may have helped Banks in some minor ways (it’s hard to think of many), but enough to make up for Sawant’s advantages in field and per-voter spending, plus the citywide deficit of 4.1 percentage points? That’s hard to imagine.

It’s also true that turnout was low, and that Sawant tends to do well with less frequent voters. That may have hurt her some. However, D3 turnout held up relatively well, falling only from 52.8 percent in 2013 to 49.1 percent this year. That alone can’t explain Sawant’s drop. Moreover, it’s unclear whether Sawant’s voters did, in fact, have lower turnout. The proportion of D3 votes cast from Sawant strongholds actually increased modestly from 2013 to 2015. Even if turnout explained Sawant’s decline, the same dynamic would have hurt her in a citywide run, perhaps even worse.

Why does this all matter? Obviously, for the election outcome, it doesn’t. However, it tells us that after two years and a well-run campaign, Sawant has not expanded her base – despite a savvy campaign team and incredibly energized constituency.

Perhaps that’s because, as I argued Monday, the voters aren’t exactly feeling agitated to revolution right now. Perhaps Pamela Banks simply converted voters who like Sawant but like her better. Perhaps some proportion of 2013 Sawant voters didn’t expect her to win, and were less comfortable with their protest vote post-actualization. The data doesn’t say. But, in some sense, the data needn’t say. This election was a test of whether Sawant, her movement’s most compelling figure, could expand her base. It did not happen. If anything, there may have been a retraction.

This fact does not make Sawant electorally vulnerable. I have been bullish on Sawant’s prospects all year, and continue to believe her council seat is almost fireproof. She will doubtlessly continue to be a powerful presence, and be a figure of moral authority for a significant proportion of the Seattle electorate. But, without even majority voter support for Sawant citywide, the expansion possibilities for the Socialist Alternative movement are in some doubt.

No election is the end-all, but for now, the rapid rise of Sawant’s movement may have bounced off an electoral ceiling.


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