Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Tale of Two Wards: Measuring the enthusiasm gap in mayoral race

Posted By on Wed, May 22, 2013 at 8:47 AM

In days to come, pundits and politicos will be doing all kinds of analysis of yesterday's mayoral primary, looking for big-picture trends and story lines in Bill Peduto's triumph over Jack Wagner. But if you want to start getting a feel for how this race played out, you can do so by starting small -- looking at results in just two city wards, the 14th and the 19th.

These are two of the city's biggest, most vote-heavy, wards. And they represent two poles of the city's electorate, or at least the white portions of it.

The 14th ward, which is centered on Squirrel Hill, is Peduto Country, a bastion of college-educated liberalism. The 19th, which includes working-class Beechview and its environs, is the Wagner family's stomping grounds. (Jack Wagner lives in Beechview, and his brother Pete chairs the Democratic Party's 19th ward committee.) Given that turnout was so low yesterday -- in the mid-20s countywide -- this election was always going to turn on who did the best job of rallying their base, starting with the voters in their own backyards.

So how did the candidates do? Not surprisingly, they each won their own homeground. But Wagner's performance was much less impressive.

According to my sleep-deprived calculations, based on unofficial election returns, in Ward 19 Wagner beat Peduto by roughly 2,900 to 1,750; he got roughly one-and-a-half votes for every vote Peduto got. But in Ward 14, Peduto's home turf, Peduto beat Wagner by 5,700 to 1,400, give or take. That's more than four votes for every one Wagner got.

Peduto actually managed to win a handful of precincts in Ward 19; Wagner didn't take a single precinct in Ward 14, though he got close at a couple polling stations (and of course fluctuations in the final results could change that).

There were other signs of an enthusiasm gap. In Ward 14, I count nearly 7,500 Democratic voters casting a ballot yesterday. That's an increase of about 20 percent from the 2009 mayoral primary. Meanwhile, in Ward 19, roughly 200 fewer Democratic voters turned up when compared to 2009. This despite the fact that a native son was on the ballot -– one who would have been the first mayor ever elected from the South Hills.

A caveat here: While the 2009 results are final, the numbers from 2013 are preliminary and subject to change. There's also a danger in comparing cohorts from two whole different elections, because it's not the same electorate. What seems to have eroded the turnout in Ward 19, in fact, was a slight drop-off in the pool of Democratic voters: Actual turnout –- the percentage of eligible voters who came to the polls -– remained in the mid-30s both in 2009 and 2013, and was marginally higher this year.

But again, contrast that with Ward 14, where most polling places showed an uptick in turnout -- by about 7 or 8 percentage points on average.

Put simply: The numbers suggest a measurable enthusiasm gap in the two candidates' bases. And this jibes with some anecdotal evidence that goes beyond Peduto's chorus of rabid Tweeters. In the weeks leading up to the primary itself, I was sort of surprised there weren't more Wagner yard signs in Beechview. There weren't many for Peduto either, of course. But if lawn signs are a gauge of anything, it's enthusiasm. And that just seemed lacking in the neighborhood where Wagner needed it most.

Consider too the District 4 city council race between incumbent/Peduto ally Natalia Rudiak and challenger Johnny Lee, which voters in Ward 19 were also participating in. As I first reported a couple weeks ago, Lee put out a letter to voters boasting of his ties to Wagner, who he contended would likely be the next mayor. It was "highly probable" that Wagner would win, Lee wrote, adding. "It's not productive to have our councilperson on the wrong side of City Hall."

That was consistent with Lee's campaign strategy, which was to portray Rudiak as being too close to Peduto. But as Rudiak predicted at the time, it proved a bit presumptuous to assume Peduto was going to lose. And Lee may have seen the handwriting on the wall even before election day. As the Post-Gazette reported yesterday, Lee sent out a new mailer in the final days of the campaign. And in that letter, Lee pledges that "If elected I promise to work side by side with whoever becomes the mayor."

Rudiak, of course, won her election as well.


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