St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Friday, May 27, 2005

No trends emerge from city election

The low-key 2005 general election for mayor produced some puzzling results. Even though St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay won re-election comfortably with nearly 79% of the vote, that margin disappointed many observers. An incumbent is expected to win re-election by a larger margin than his initial win, but Slay’s margin declined from the 87% by which he originally won the office. This was true even though Slay’s 2001 win was against an established (albeit weakening) Republican Party, while his 2005 opponent was Willie Marshall, a political unknown from the Green Party. In fact, Slay’s 79% set a new record low for citywide Democrats running one-on-one against a Green Party candidate, supplanting the 85% won by License Collector Greg Daly in 2002, and falling well below the 90%+ garnered by Public Administrator Gerard Nester (not exactly a household name) against the very same Willie Marshall just last November.

The local Green Party organization claims that the election demonstrates that the city, and especially its African American population, is ready to disaffiliate with a Democratic Party that betrays its progressive base with socially and economically conservative office-holders who are beholden to Big Business. Republicans no longer compete in the city, say the Greens, because city Democrats implement Republican policies for them. Nine of the 11 citywide elected officials are white, and all nine white Democrats oppose abortion rights. Ditto for two of the city’s three state senators. The Greens represent a challenge from the Left, and the Democrats’ conservative policies have made them vulnerable to such an attack.

Other observers claim that the 2005 results simply reflect the racial divisions of the city, with the vast majority of voters merely supporting the candidate of their own race. (Slay is white, and Marshall is African American.) The numbers give this theory some support. Despite more than a generation of overwhelming loyalty to the Democratic Party, African American voters gave the Green Party candidate his greatest support. With just a couple exceptions, the blacker the ward, the higher Marshall’s support. Similarly, white voters gave Slay his greatest support, and the whiter the ward, the greater Slay’s support. The six virtually all-black wards gave Marshall 35.7% of the vote, compared to just 8.6% in three virtually all-white wards in southwest St. Louis.

These results were in marked contrast to returns as recent as last November. In Marshall’s race for Public Administrator, he fared much better in white wards than in African American wards. The difference was the context. The November elections were dominated by the national contests at the top of the ticket in which the Democratic candidates were perceived as progressive. Straight tickets inspired by voters’ presidential choices left the Greens out in the cold in the local contests at the bottom of the ballot. In contrast, the focus of the April elections was local, and Slay was correctly perceived as conservative.

A better election for comparative purposes is the 2003 contest for President of the Board of Aldermen, which, like this year’s mayor’s race, was locally focused without on-ballot influence of national candidates or issues. In 2003, Green Party nominee Don DeVivo won 4,244 votes and just under 15% of the vote against incumbent Democrat Jim Shrewsbury. The 2005 election saw Marshall improve the Green showing in both raw votes (5,272) and percentage (21%). But the voting patterns were much different, and the news wasn’t all good for the Greens. While Marshall vastly improved Green performance with African Americans, his support among whites was disappointing. Not only did Marshall do more poorly in white wards than in black wards, he even trailed DeVivo’s 2003 performance among whites. Marshall polled behind DeVivo in eight white-majority wards (nine in raw vote), and it wasn’t just the conservative wards. Historically, Green support has been strongest in three progressive wards, the 8th and 15th flanking Tower Grove Park and the 24th in Dogtown and Clifton Heights. There in the party’s base, Marshall trailed DeVivo’s performance in both the 15th and 24th. Only in the 8th Ward, where about half the voters are African American, did Marshall improve on DeVivo’s numbers. Losing one’s base is not a sign of growth.

While the “racial voting” theory has statistical support, it doesn’t pan out in the context of what really happened. A voter can’t consciously vote for a person based on race without knowing the candidate’s race. Marshall’s campaign was very low profile and did very little to communicate information to voters, including his race. (He did advertise on Lizz Brown’s radio program, but her audience is smaller than she would lead us to believe.) The African-American press pretty much ignored the general election. Marshall didn’t provide any information or photograph for the Post-Dispatch Voter’s Guide (print and online), and he turned down a free interview on Channel 5's highly rated 10:00 news on primary election night. It is more plausible that more African Americans voted “against” Slay than “for” Marshall.

Moreover, racial voting was not very evident in the school board contest at the same election. African American incumbent Veronica O’Brien and white former board member Bill Purdy both did well in both white and black wards. Ironically, the victories by O’Brien and Slay-backed Flint Fowler produced a major milestone, the School Board’s first-ever African American majority.

Thus, while the election offers lots of interesting data that departs from historical patterns, the Oracle concludes that the news about election trends is that there aren’t any. The 2005 mayoral election was perceived merely as a personal referendum on Mayor Slay, and the results do not foreshadow any particular future trends for the city’s political parties.


Blogger Murphy said...

I have to say, I am with you on your analysis. The election wasn't really even a contest. The Greens tried to point to their surprisingly large share of the vote as a sign of their growing influence, but I think it was more of a fluke for all the reasons you have stated.

Although I jokingly suggested a while back that if the Greens could run a completely stealth campaign and convince anyone even remotely interested in supporting them to show up on the day of the general, and there were no major issues on the ballot, they could conceivably steal the election away from the Dems. I don't think its really conceivable, but if turnout keeps dropping, they could make a few folks sweat.

A viable alternative party in the city could help drive up participation.

It was hard to draw conclusions about Slaw from the School Board election either. Most of the people who showed up voted for Slay, but the School Board candidates were almost split evenly between Slay's group and the O'Brien, Pudy, and Downs ticket. Just a few thousand less overall for Slay's picks.

June 1, 2005 at 1:15 AM  
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