Matt Driscoll

What Tacoma’s mayoral candidates need to do to win in November

For Jim Merritt and Victoria Woodards, an analysis of the Tacoma mayoral primary map shows opportunities and challenges for both.
For Jim Merritt and Victoria Woodards, an analysis of the Tacoma mayoral primary map shows opportunities and challenges for both. Staff photos

Voters who took the time to make their voices heard in Tacoma’s Aug. 1 mayoral primary – which, granted, wasn’t many – spoke decisively.

Jim Merritt and Victoria Woodards, the two best-known candidates vying for the nonpartisan position, comfortably skated through to the November general election.

The good news for both is that a closer look at the precinct-by-precinct map reveals reasons for optimism for each candidate.

But it also shows significant challenges.

Can Merritt, who emerged from the primary with only about 500 more votes than Woodards, capitalize and improve on a strong showing in Tacoma’s West End, Northeast and the North End — areas known to have older, higher-income voters and high rates of homeownership?

And, at the same time, can he improve in the areas of Tacoma where he struggled?

Or will Woodards be able to take advantage the areas where she did well — Hilltop, South Tacoma and the Eastside — and turn that into a road map for victory, buoyed by larger expected general election turnout, especially among younger, lower-income and more diverse voters?

And perhaps most pressing of all, with which candidate will voters who supported Evelyn Lopez in the primary — some 6000 of them — align now that their chosen hopeful is out of the running?

Inspired by a map local political consultant Ben Anderstone worked up for Crosscut breaking down Seattle’s mayoral vote, two of my much smarter and more capable colleagues here at The News Tribune, Kate Martin and Ian Swenson, helped me come up a similar map for Tacoma.

Then I reached out to Anderstone for help with the analysis. (Because, let’s be honest, he’s smarter than me, too.)

In some ways, the map that emerged reveals what you might expect: A demographic divide among Tacoma’s electorate.

As Anderstone notes, however, the divide was “more than a partisan or ideological one.”

Instead, it was north and south.

The map clearly indicates Merritt enjoyed his strongest support in Northeast Tacoma and north of Sixth Avenue, while Woodards performed well in Central Tacoma, Hilltop and most precincts south of Interstate 5.

While Merritt almost certainly won conservative voters, it's worth noting that he had plenty of non-conservative vote. You don't hit 40 percent in the North End if you're only picking up Republicans. ... As in his last run, Merritt appears to have done well among left-leaning North End voters.

Political consultant Ben Anderstone

“While Merritt almost certainly won conservative voters, it’s worth noting that he had plenty of non-conservative vote,” Anderstone says. “You don’t hit 40 percent in the North End if you’re only picking up Republicans.

“As in his last run, Merritt appears to have done well among left-leaning North End voters,” Anderstone continued.

For Woodards, her most decisive victories came in parts of the city with are “lower-income, have more renters and are more racially diverse,” Anderstone notes.

These are areas where primary participation tends to lag, and with overall turnout potentially doubling in the general election, there’s big room for improvement.

Still, Anderstone believes Woodards won’t be able to solely rely on increased turnout in parts of the city that were friendly to her alone. She’ll need to improve her numbers in the northern parts of the city as well, targeting progressive North End voters.

“While Woodards did best in areas with lots of diversity, the primary electorate in Tacoma is very white.” Anderstone says. “Her performance in these areas can’t be attributed to diversity alone; she certainly did well with the white vote in these areas, as well.

“On the other end, it’s not surprising that Woodards struggled in Northeast Tacoma, but she’ll need to substantially improve her showing in the North End. This is an area with tons of progressives and, while the electorate isn’t diverse, non-white candidates don’t historically underperform in the North End.”

The Lopez factor — and the environmental concerns her candidacy represented for many voters — remains as perhaps the most intriguing unanswered question heading toward November.

While Lopez only won two precincts in the primary - one sizable, and one tiny - where her 6,000 primary votes go in the general election will likely go a long way toward deciding who becomes mayor.

Conventional wisdom points to a Lopez voter being more likely to support Woodards. As Anderstone says, “When you set aside areas with special concerns … Lopez did stronger in progressive areas, which favored Woodards. That suggests to me that Lopez’s voters are more ideologically favorable for Woodards.”

That might not be the safe assumption among all factions of voters. Just look at Lopez’s strong support in Northeast Tacoma.

“Lopez’s support tended to be in areas with lots of progressives, and she clearly got a boost from concerns about the LNG plant. Her top showings were Hilltop, Downtown and Northeast Tacoma — not a combination you see very often,” Anderstone observes.

Lopez’s showing in Northeast Tacoma is likely a strong indication that her stance against Puget Sound Energy’s proposed liquid natural gas facility, as well as the failed methanol plant, resonated with voters there.

And picking up voters from this block — which doesn’t just live in Northeast Tacoma, it’s worth noting — might prove difficult for Woodards, given that many see her tenure on the City Council as part of the problem.

“The LNG-focused voters — in Northeast Tacoma and elsewhere — may very well be in play,” Anderstone says.

Justly or unjustly, that’s a sentiment that Marilyn Strickland didn’t have to deal with when she squeaked out a win against Merritt in the mayor’s race back in 2009.

Now the real fun begins.