The results were a surprise. Perhaps they shouldn’t have been.
Nearly two weeks after election night, we know with certainty that Victoria Woodards will be Tacoma’s next mayor. We also know, with equal certainty, that Woodards’ campaign exceeded the expectations that many had for how the candidate would fare in Tacoma’s North End.
The North End, the city’s toniest of enclaves, was supposed to lean toward architect Jim Merritt, perhaps even heavily. At least that was the general line of thinking from a number of people who follow Tacoma politics.
Instead, Woodards cruised to victory in the majority of North End precincts, her success there buoyed by a robust volunteer ground game and a tide of last-minute dysfunction that a local political consultant likened to the wheels falling off Merritt’s campaign.
It was a victory lots of people — myself included — didn’t see coming, at least after August’s primary.
Here’s why: Back in August, as part of a three-way race that included Evelyn Lopez, Merritt was the lead vote-getter in a vast majority of precincts that are at least partially within the boundaries of what’s typically understood as the North End. That’s using Division, Sixth Avenue, Orchard Street and Commencement Bay as boundaries.
During this month’s general election, however, those results were essentially flipped.
Conventional wisdom suggested that for Woodards to emerge victorious, the former city councilwoman and former director of the Tacoma Urban League would need to keep the margin close in the North End and then work to get the vote out in the South End and East Side.
Woodards seems to have accomplished the latter. She also turned much of the North End in her favor.
So what happened?
To Ben Anderstone, a local political consultant with Progressive Strategies NW, part of the answer comes down to questioning the assumption led to the expectations.
I actually wouldn't say Merritt underperformed in the North End. One thing to keep in mind is that Merritt lost ground vis-a-vis Victoria, but he didn't necessarily lose (many) votes. … He just gained a lot fewer than Victoria, and fewer than he did citywide.
Ben Anderstone, a local political consultant with Progressive Strategies NW
“I think a lot of the expectations for Merritt come from the belief that non-white candidates tend to do poorly in the heavily white North End. This isn’t necessarily true,” Anderstone said. As evidence, he cited two fairly recent examples where black candidates have fared better in the North End than they have citywide running against white opponents.
In 2014, Pierce County District Court candidate Karl Williams, an African-American, beat Jeanette Lineberry in the North End, only to lose countywide. In 2011, African-American school board candidate Dexter Gordon carried the North End but lost to Scott Heinze.
“I actually wouldn’t say Merritt underperformed in the North End,” Anderstone added. “But Merritt certainly couldn’t carry over his primary strength there into the general, and he gained many fewer votes there than Woodards did.”
That’s true, but it’s also another way of saying Woodards made up significant ground on Merritt in the North End during the general election.
Dorian Waller, a partner in Archway Consulting, put it bluntly when asked how this happened.
“Honestly, I think Jim got outworked,” he told me.
At least in part, Waller was referencing a door-belling-based outreach effort on the part of the Woodards campaign that leveraged the enthusiasm of over 350 volunteers. It succeeded in making contact with thousands of potential voters each weekend in the lead up to the Nov. 7 election, according to Woodards campaign field director James Rolph.
Specifically, according to Woodards campaign manager Trevor Hemenway, there was a focus in the North End on identifying precincts where Lopez had fared well during the primary and then working to flip those votes to Woodards.
“We did target areas where Evelyn did well and tried to pick up some of those voters,” Hemenway said.
Added Rolph: “We knew that there were voters there that really needed to hear Victoria’s message, because we thought they would be very interested in voting for someone with her background and priorities.”
Knocking on doors is one thing. Having a message that resonates once you’re on that doorstep is quite another. Rolph said the message deployed on the ground related to more central and universal themes.
“Victoria is a wonderfully easy candidate to talk about with voters. We had the same message everywhere we went in Tacoma,” Rolph said. “We talked about quality of life, housing affordability and taking a holistic and effective approach to help alleviate the issues with homelessness.”
To assess Woodards’ North End victory as simply the result of door-belling and a message that resonated doesn’t fully explain the dynamics of this year’s mayoral election, however.
There also was the ugliness and contentiousness of the campaign’s final weeks — highlighted (or lowlighted) by dubious mailers and letters to the editor, allegations of Merritt taking undue credit for projects he had limited involvement in and racially charged accusations lobbed by former Merritt campaign volunteer Tom McCarthy.
To Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant active in local campaigns, these late-breaking developments likely had a profound impact on the outcome in the North End. So, too, did the general lack of an effective response from the Merritt campaign, he believes.
“The ugliness cut both ways,” Hays said. “The negativity probably made each of their bases more interested in them. But when they get riled up, there is a more visible manifestation of what that means for the Democratic base (that largely favored Woodards).”
You see the Democratic base get riled up and want to do something. You probably didn’t see Merritt’s base get riled up the same way. ... The neighborhood where that criticism probably took hold the sharpest was the North End.
Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant active in local campaigns
“You see the Democratic base get riled up and want to do something. You probably didn’t see Merritt’s base get riled up the same way,” Hays added. “The neighborhood where that criticism probably took hold the sharpest was the North End.”
If there’s a lesson for future campaigns, perhaps it’s this: In local politics, anyway, the low road can lead to failure.
“I think it motivated a lot of people to get involved, especially when things started going south,” Hemenway said.