In the “election surprises” category, this curious nugget of information wins first prize: in Broadmoor, the gated golf club community near Madison Park, five people voted for District 3 incumbent and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant. Over 400 people in Broadmoor turned in ballots (mostly supporting third-place finisher Pat Murakami) this year. An unusually high number for the precinct.
Broadmoor is not alone. The uptick in voter turnout reflects a city- and D3-wide trend. Particularly higher-income homeowners turned out in larger numbers compared to 2015.
“The most conservative voters were more motivated for this election than they’ve been in quite some time in Seattle,” said local political consultant Crystal Fincher.
But, she added, “we’re seeing an overall energized electorate, particularly in Seattle. That’s a really, really big deal.” Fincher partly credits the city’s Democracy Voucher program.
According to local consultant Ben Anderstone, Trump and KOMO’s controversial ‘Seattle Is Dying’ documentary have something to do with it as well.
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Or at least the 2016 Presidential Election, which has galvanized voters, as has “the conversation around homelessness and the efficacy of the city providing social services,” Anderstone said.
“The most motivated voters right now tend to be voters who are skeptical about the direction of the city, who feel that the city has been perhaps either too permissive or too spendy when it comes to the homelessness crisis. That’s [also] reflected in polling which suggests higher income home-owning voters are especially likely to be dissatisfied with the direction of the city.”
PACs like Moms for Seattle and others “added kindling to that particular fire,” according to Anderstone.
The high voter turnout trend is likely to continue in the General Election in November. Higher voter turnout, which tends to be associated with greater turnout among lower-income voters, renters, non-college educated, and non-white voters, usually benefits more progressive candidates. And General Elections usually attract more progressive voters. That should be good news for Sawant. But, Anderstone added, the now-galvanized higher-income voters are “not just going to disappear.”
“It is likely that this will be an unusually higher-income electorate for the General.”
This dynamic has benefitted Orion (who garnered most support in wealthier areas with more homeowners, and did well in precincts with increased voter turnout) but slightly hurt Sawant in the primary, Anderstone said.
Precinct-level voting data shows Sawant easily racks up more than 50% of the vote in the denser, more racially diverse and renter-heavy heart of D3, where her message of rent control likely has resonated, but struggled in the north and water-adjacent precincts where Orion did well.
Sawant pinned down the crux of her reelection campaign in simple terms from the start. It would be a battle over who runs Seattle: Amazon and big business, or working people. Much as she built her past campaign around the $15 Now cause, Sawant’s camp teed up rent control, social housing and taxing Amazon as the rallying flags heading into November.
Meanwhile, Orion, the former Capitol Hill chamber head and longtime Pridefest organizer, launched his campaign with talk of a more business-friendly approach and a more conciliatory messaging towards Amazon, the city’s largest employer. Orion also said he was against what he called “half-baked” head tax but said he’d support new, similar efforts. In much of his messaging, Orion presented himself as a more moderate voice in City Hall and “good governance” candidate.
Challenger Zachary DeWolf took a similar approach from the left and positioned himself as a progressive alternative to Sawant’s brash style. He came in fourth with 12.59% of the votes. Another progressive candidate, Ami Nguyen, a public defender with a focus on representing all of District 3 including neighborhoods far beyond its Capitol Hill core, was able to capture over 9% of the vote.
Anderstone said that Sawant lost voters to DeWolf and Nguyen, which he saw as a sign that not all progressive voters are ranking her as their first choice. “That’s a negative signal for her, I think,” he said, suggesting these votes are “on the table” for Orion.
Fincher saw it differently. Sure, you could look at Sawant’s 36.7% total and call it a less-than-ideal performance, Fincher said. Comparatively, however, “you could say that [her] message resonated more than most other messages.”
And given that most other primary candidates’ visions — for the head tax and more affordable housing — line up with Sawant’s, Fincher believes she is in a better position than Orion. “You can get to [at least] 50% in the primary of people who voted for pro head tax candidates,” Fincher said.
But, she added, Sawant will have to galvanize voters who didn’t cast their ballots and the ones who voted for DeWolf and Nguyen.
Fincher thinks that will happen when the discussion shifts from labels to policy.
“In primaries, it’s really easy to talk in generalizations and draw distinctions based off of general messaging” such as “pragmatic” versus “radical socialist,” she said. “It’s much easier to polarize around those types of labels than it is to look at specific policy.”
For Orion, presenting himself as the “good governance” candidate has resonated more than his policies, Fincher said. But in the General, you can’t make up for vagueness with style, she said. “It’s going to be tougher.”
Both Orion and Sawant will have to walk delicate ideological lines, said Anderstone and Fincher.
“Because the success of [Egan Orion’s campaign] was partly built on an unusually high conservative turnout, they’re going to have a harder time walking the line of attracting the average, more progressive voter,” Fincher said. “He’s going to have to make himself a safe landing spot for them while also not scare off some of the very conservative voters, who were very motivated to vote for him. And that can be a tricky thing to pull off.”
“He’s going to have to appeal to those [progressive] voters while at the same time also driving energy among the kind of Seattle is Dying voters who are kind of reactive towards city issues,” Anderstone said. “In terms of tone and approach to city issues, [these are] totally different groups.”
Sawant, meanwhile, will have to straddle mobilizing her base plus lower-turnout voters while appealing to, Anderstone said, “voters who have soured a bit on her hyper populist approach.”
“That might require a bit of a tonal shift. If she doesn’t pull that off, I think chances are she’s going to get knocked out in the General.”
Want to learn more? Here is a map showing final tallies for all candidates in every King County Primary race from Jason Weill of Tableau.