What does it all mean?
When it comes to interpreting primary results from Tacoma’s District 1 — you know, the North Tacoma and West End enclave where young, progressive incumbent Anders Ibsen has to deal with advantageous challengers, the open disdain of every colleague on the council but Ryan Mello, and a business-fueled political action committee hoping to unseat him — the forecast for November depends on who is talking.
Which, naturally, is always the case in politics.
There are a couple ways to spin what happened when Aug. 4 primary results came back showing Ibsen had secured nearly 47 percent of the votes cast, defeating third-place finisher Tara Doyle-Enneking (24.3 percent) and John Hines (28.6 percent).
The most obvious is the way Ibsen is telling it — that the results represent “a strong first-place finish.”
That’s undoubtedly true.
As Ben Anderstone, a political consultant and number cruncher at Progressive Strategies Northwest, the firm Ibsen has hired to help inform his campaign, told me: “I'll put it this way: when I saw the results, I didn't tell Anders that he could spend the next month lounging on his back deck ... but I did give him a big high-five.”
But if you ask those working on the campaign of Ibsen’s general election challenger, John Hines, the results show something much different: vulnerability.
It doesn’t take a math major to see the obvious. Though Ibsen cruised to victory in the primary, his two challengers, combined, received more votes than he did. “I am pleased the primary results show the majority of District 1 wants change,” Doyle-Enneking said in a press release endorsing Hines after her own defeat.
Yes, it’s hard to imagine voters who were compelled to support Doyle-Enneking, widely seen as the most business-friendly of the bunch, switching their allegiance to Ibsen now that they’re preferred candidate has been eliminated.
But will it really be that simple?
“There is nothing to brag about in this primary performance for Team Ibsen,” Jason Bennett of Argo Strategies tells me. Bennett is certainly familiar with the political landscape in Tacoma. His firm, in addition to working for Hines, lists clients like Victoria Woodards, Robert Thoms, Lauren Walker, Mello and recently defeated District 3 candidate Justin Leighton.
However, Bennett references a well-known Seattle City Council race to help make his point.
“Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin earned 47.74 percent in his three-way primary in 2013 before losing to (Kshama) Sawant in the general election,” Bennett offers. “(Ibsen) is nearly a full point behind that performance.”
That’s also undoubtedly true.
So, again, what does it all mean?
The unsatisfying answer to that question is we simply don’t know yet. There are too many variables. While primary turnout was better in District 1 than, say, District 3, it’s still safe to assume that many more voters will cast general election ballots in November than did in August. What those voters look like — older and more conservative, or younger and more socioeconomically diverse — will likely go a long way in determining which candidate emerges victorious.
Bennett, for his part, argues that incumbency and a significant fundraising advantage should have helped Ibsen more than it did, and that later returns showed eroding support for a candidate who was supposed to benefit from “the lore around his doorbelling prowess.”
Additionally, Bennett says Ibsen had the most difficulty attracting primary voters in precincts close to Proctor, and wonders if this could be “because Anders has taken thousands in donations from developers while ignoring his constituents' concerns about moving too fast?”
Translation: Look for Hines to make Proctor Station, the controversial mixed-use development project that has come to dominate the neighborhood’s skyline, a key campaign issue.
Anderstone, meanwhile, has his own way of looking at the numbers. He suggests that history doesn’t necessarily support the assumption that Doyle-Enneking voters will automatically shift to Hines, and believes some of the things that helped Hines in the primary, like the perception of a polarizing race, could hurt three months from now.
“Candidates who rely on more conservative and Republican voters generally face a tougher electorate in the general (election),” Anderstone says. “Precinct results indicate that Hines relies more on those conservative voters.
“Basically, the very factor that superficially helps Hines — polarization — will also hurt him as more voters show up.”
The obvious lesson in all this: Political consultants work hard for their paychecks.
And what will happen this November is still anyone’s guess.