In writing last week about why a campaign based on process and personality won’t be enough to defeat Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels in November (“Will Voters Tune In to Seattle City Government’s Family Feud?“), I raised a question that’s surely on the mind of his challengers and their self-soothing consultants:
Now some might counter, if Nickels is so strong, why are his polling numbers so weak? But that’s a question for another post…
Well, with retiring City Council member Jan Drago officially announcing her candidacy today, it’s time for that post, and I don’t think it’s one the field of challengers will find any more encouraging or flattering than the last.
Let’s begin with the facts. Every survey out there—the mayor’s, his opponents’, and those from third parties—shows Nickels’ approval rating consistently polling somewhere in the mid-thirties, and anybody who knows anything about electoral politics will tell you that for a two-term incumbent, that’s an awfully bad place to be. Just falling below 50% is conventionally considered a sign of vulnerability, but 35%…? It’s time to start sending out your resume.
So it’s understandable why Drago and the other challengers might feel buoyed. Up until Drago’s entrance it was a crap-shoot as to who might win the second spot on the November ballot (my sense is that Nickels and Drago are now the clear favorites to make it through the primary), and going up against such an unpopular incumbent, it would be the challenger’s race to lose.
Or so dictates conventional wisdom.
But the the thing about conventional wisdom is that it’s so damn conventional, and as such, tends to obscure the vagaries that surround all candidates and influence all political campaigns. And as I wrote last week, anybody counting on 35% in April to automatically translate into defeat in November has another think coming, especially since, quite frankly, Mayor Nickels never seems to poll all that well.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the mayor poll above fifty percent,” one long time Nickels aide told me. You know, except on election day… the only day that really counts. As to why the mayor polls so poorly, well, that’s hard to say, but I’m guessing it has something to do with his penchant for attempting to do stuff.
Are you an ardent opponent of light rail? Then you probably hate the mayor… likewise for those of you for whom the monorail was the stuff of wet dreams. Prefer the rebuild or surface/transit options for replacing the Viaduct? Well then, screw Mayor Nickels and his gold-plated, faith-based tunnel.
Angry at losing the Sonics? Convinced the grocery bag tax is nanny-statism gone awry? Think Nickels is anti-business and/or in the pocket of developers? Affordable housing vs. plummeting home prices… transit-oriented development vs. preserving our neighborhoods… service cuts vs. tax increases… whatever side of whatever issue, you name it and you can probably find reason enough to blame the mayor.
Of course, the only alternative to doing stuff is to do nothing, but that’s just not in Nickels’ character, and besides, whatever reputation the mayor has for a willingness to spend political capital (sometimes frivolously), it can’t help but appear exaggerated compared to the how-low-can you-go profile of the city council.
I mean, here’s a thought experiment for you: pull out your stopwatch and see how long it takes you to come up with nine things you don’t like about the mayor and his policies. Pretty easy, huh? Now time how long it takes you to name all nine city council members.
See what I mean?
Yeah sure, there’s something about Nickels’ style that particularly pisses off those establishment types steeped in a lazy political culture that puts every contentious issue up for public vote, and too often confuses leadership for arrogance (all the while whining about the lack of the former), but he’s not the only executive to head into an election year with less than stellar approval ratings. Gov. Chris Gregoire had only just inched up to 45% by April of 2008, yet still managed to win by over six points come November. And perhaps more relevantly, former King County Executive Ron Sims’ approval rating was likewise mired in the mid thirties in April of 2005, yet he still ran away to a 16-point win in his landslide bid for a third term.
So while no doubt the mayor’s people would prefer to see his approval ratings climb, they won’t start shitting bricks unless and until the coming barrage of campaign advertising fails to budge his numbers.
So now that we’ve settled that—35% approval rating bad, but not fatal—let’s talk about what the challengers can do to exploit Nickels’ obvious vulnerability. And the answer is… um… not much. For despite the litany of mayoral gripes I’ve outlined above, and the many, many more I’ve neglected, there really aren’t any big, consensus building issues with which to attack the mayor.
Drago and the others can focus all they want on Frozen Watergate, but in a city that experiences major snowstorms every decade or so, snow removal is hardly a top priority, while efforts to spin the icy streets as emblematic will be hard pressed in the absence of evidence of a broader culture of mismanagement. The city failed to clear the streets for a week, and…? They better come up with an “and” or two if they truly want to use this issue to their advantage.
We had the snow as bad as anywhere down in my neck of the woods, but that’s one week out of the 385 or so Nickels has been mayor. Over that same tenure our crime is down, our streets have been paved, our libraries renovated, and our playfields re-turfed. We’re not too happy about the direction our schools are going or the level of Metro bus service, but somebody should remind Mike and Jan that these two services don’t fall under the mayor’s purview. Meanwhile, we’ve got a shiny new train running through the Rainier Valley that’s driving much needed redevelopment, and is about to make us the envy of the region.
And I live in South Seattle, one of the most neglected areas of the city.
I’m not saying there aren’t failures in the mayor’s administration, there just haven’t been any major failures, and certainly nothing endemic. A couple weeks ago I chatted with a staffer for self-financed candidate Joe Mallahan, who after failing to goad me on snow removal and Key Arena (“Aren’t you angry about the Sonics leaving… or don’t you like sports?” she asked me, I think implying something lacking in my manhood should I affirm the latter), raised the specter of Seattle’s budget deficit as evidence of Nickels’ unfitness to manage city affairs.
The budget? Really?
Seattle’s projected $29.5 million revenue shortfall is nothing compared to that of the state or even King County, and the mayor’s proposed budget adjustments have proven proportionately less painful and controversial, mostly consisting of a mandatory one-week furlough for library employees, the elimination of 59 positions (half of which were already open) and a $5 million transfer from the city’s rainy day fund (leaving another $25 million in reserve, compared to the mere $2 million he inherited in 2001).
All in all, I’d say the city has recently managed its finances quite well, and I don’t get the sense that many voters are convinced otherwise.
Likewise, despite the many opportunities Nickels has had to piss off one constituency or another through positions he’s taken and the policies he’s advocated, it hardly adds up to a throw the bum out consensus, especially considering the utter lack of differentiation his opponents have enunciated on these very same issues. How exactly does Mike McGinn expect to court the environmental vote away from one of the most outspoken environmental mayors in the nation? Does Drago really believe she’ll be embraced as a credible alternative when she’s been the mayor’s most reliable ally on the council?
Yes, opinion polls show the mayor remains unpopular, but it’s not due to any major scandal—personal, ethical, performance or otherwise—and its not due to the stances he’s taken on major issues, which have largely been in step with the vast majority of Seattle voters. The fact is, Mayor Nickels is neither corrupt nor incompetent nor out of sync with our values. Folks just don’t like him.
The dilemma for the challengers is this: how do you defeat a competent, scandal-free mayor whose values you share, and whose policy agenda you largely support? You beat him by being a better politician.
And that’s why I’m convinced that none of the challengers in this race, not even Drago, can beat Mayor Nickels, for as vulnerable as he is, and as grating as his style obviously can be, none of his opponents possess the force of personality necessary to get voters excited about change. I don’t write this as Nickels booster; I’ve got nothing against the mayor, though I’ve got nothing particularly for him either, and there have been plenty of issues on which we’ve disagreed.
But issues don’t win races, candidates do. Thus the solution to beating a scandal-free incumbent, even one with a pathetic 35% approval rating, is to simply be a better politician. And sadly for them, none of the challengers are that.