A closer look at Portland’s mayoral election

Multnomah County, Oregon–home of Portland, and also me!–has just started to release precinct-level election data.

Of course, I’m very interested in getting a super granular view on how the Portland metro area voted for President, but many of the surrounding counties haven’t released their precinct-level results yet.

In the interim, I wanted to get a closer look at a pretty contentious race for Portland Mayor.

This race started off pretty sedately. The incumbent, Ted Wheeler, had been elected in 2016 in an incredibly boring race between two identically liberal white guys. I honestly don’t remember who I voted for that go-round, but I do recall struggling to make a decision because they were just so similar.

This year, Wheeler seemed set to cruise to victory over this year’s challenger Sarah Iannarone, a relative unknown with no governmental experience.

Then, of course, George Floyd was murdered and Portland erupted in protests. Voters turned on Wheeler as he took a soft stance against the Portland Police Bureau’s aggressive “crowd control” tactics.

Suddenly, Iannarone seemed like a real threat, and by September she was leading Wheeler by 11 points.

To compound the excitement, Teressa Raiford, who finished third in the primary race and wasn’t on the final ballot, launched her own write-in campaign over the summer. Or volunteers associated with her launched it? I’m not sure how personally involved she was, actually. But as a long-time activist for police accountability, she was well placed to pick up some anti-Wheeler voters.

What ended up happening was sadly predictable. Raiford’s write in campaign ended up splitting the progressive vote, and Ted Wheeler snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

…Or at least that’s the story on Reddit’s r/Portland, where I get most of my bitter discussion of local news.

I wanted to take a look, as best I could, to see how well this narrative holds up. Did Raiford’s campaign really steal voters away from Iannarone, opening the way up for Wheeler? If Raiford hadn’t ran the write-in campaign, would Iannarone have been able to win?

First, some basics

Yep, it’s a map! Surprise!

You can see that Wheeler did well on Portland’s wealthier west side, but Iannarone had support across the city.

Surprisingly, though, if Did Not Vote were a candidate, it would have come in well ahead of all write-in candidates. (I estimated voter turnout from 1/3/2020 precinct voter counts, which are a bit out date but the best I could find.)

We can also look at the results using different color scales, to better see differences that get washed out at low values.

Here, it becomes more apparent that write-in voters were concentrated on Portland’s east side.

About those write-in voters

13% of votes were for a write-in candidate, but is that particularly high? What evidence do we have that those folks wrote in Raiford?

There’s a couple things we can take a look at.

During the primary, for instance, only 0.3% of votes were for a write-in candidate. The last two mayoral races that ended up in a run-off, in 2012 and 2004, had 7% and 0.9% of votes come from write-ins, respectively.

By this measure, 13% is indeed high, and suggests that Raiford’s campaign was successful in turning out voters.

Evidence that these write-ins were for Raiford also comes from looking at how individual precincts voted during the primaries and in the election. There is a positive correlation between Raiford votes in the primary and write-in votes in the election:

This brings me to my next question…

Did Raiford’s write-in campaign take votes away from Iannarone?

Or, put another way, were Raiford voters deciding between Raiford and Wheeler or Raiford and Iannarone?

The commonsense answer to the first question is of course Raiford voters wouldn’t ever pick Wheeler. Her whole ethos is directly in opposition to the way Wheeler responded to police brutality during the protests.

We can see this in the data, too.

Firstly, voters precincts that voted more heavily for Raiford in the primary were much less likely to vote for Wheeler in the final.

Correspondingly, voters in these precincts were more likely to vote for Iannarone.

Although we can’t track the voting of individuals between the primary and final, the aggregate precinct data does seem to show that areas with historically high Raiford support ended up showing little love for Wheeler in the election.

The choice these voters seem to be making is one between voting for Sarah Iannarone or writing in Teressa Raiford. Voting for Ted Wheeler does not seem to be much of an option.

But wait! There is another option–these folks could have chosen not to vote at all. If Raiford hadn’t ran her write-in campaign, would they have voted for Iannarone, or just sat the election out?

Would write-in voters have voted at all if not for the Raiford campaign?

Well, that’s essentially unanswerable, and sounds pretty condescending now that I read it over. But it is an important question–if those voters had sat out the election instead of writing someone in, Wheeler still would have won. However, if even 40% of them had voted for Iannarone instead, she would have won.

Let’s first take a look at the turnout numbers for this election. The data shows little relationship between precincts with large numbers of write-in voters and precincts with low turnout. If anything, precincts with more write-in voters have slightly higher turnout.

Strike one for the theory that write-in voters might have sat out the election if Raiford didn’t run.

Next, we can look at the turnout for previous mayoral elections that ended in a runoff, as this year’s election did.

(The 2004 map is a bit wonky because the oldest precinct shapefile I could find was from 2009.)

We can see that the past few elections have had similar geographical patterns–generally the far east side is less likely to vote.

Additionally, the 2020 map shows that, at least for areas close-in, voter engagement was significantly up from 2012. Given the drama of the presidential election, it’s not surprising that down-ballot races were bouyed up.

But the real meat of it can be summarized here:

In the past 3 mayoral runoff elections, 22-29% of voters did not vote for mayor. If the 13% of write-in voters had not bothered to vote in the election, that would bring non-voters to a total of 35% of the electorate.

I don’t think it’s realistic to assume those write-in voters wouldn’t have voted if not for Raiford. That would involve a significant drop in turnout compared to prior years. And in such a hot political year with a Presidental election up-ballot, that strains credulity.

So, what’s the verdict?

I learned three things from this analysis:

  1. There is a positive correlation between Raiford voters in the primary and write-in voters in the final
  2. The data seems to show write-in voters picking between a write-in and Iannarone, not a write-in and Wheeler
  3. It is unlikely that write-in voters would not have voted at all if not for Raiford’s campaign

This, to me, suggests there is truth to the narrative of Sarah Iannarone’s loss being caused by Teressa Raiford’s write-in campaign.

I doubt anyone in Portland will be surprised by this conclusion, but I don’t like taking angry Reddit comments at face value 😀

Also, any excuse for a map!

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