The City and its supporters let out their breath the other day when the City Income tax increase passed. Yes, it was by the narrowest of margins, but it passed. Coupled with other tax increases in the County, many have rightly understood this as a sign that the Tea Party movement has crested, or at least come to the end of its leash.
And that likely is true. No less, true is how the measure came perilously close to defeat, not at the hands of the Tea Party, but because of its friends.
The tale of the Silver Line
Last year’s defeat of the millage for the Silver Line bus proposal would seem to have doomed this election. In that election, the City broke along the classic East/West split, with the west side voting solidly against, and the SE side giving strong approval. The result in the city was a 52% win for the millage request (with other municipalities sending it down to eventual defeat).
The militancy of the contemporary Tea Party opponents coupled with west side antipathy towards taxes made electoral strategy obvious: concentrate on voters in the First (west) and Second (north) wards. The results show a remarkable impact: 16 of 26 precincts in the First Ward saw increased share of vote yes votes from 2009; the number of precincts in the Second Ward voting Yes for the tax increase grew from 10 in 2009 to 15 in 2010. Clearly, the efforts of the campaign team worked.
And yet the measure passed by 200 votes. That tale comes in two parts.
The City Collapses
A comparison between 2010 and the 2009 vote shows a significant loss through the center city and the urban neighborhoods. The turnout dropped in Eastown and East Hills. These precincts saw an absolute drop of almost 100 voters in the turnout. And had the neighborhoods voted at the same average rate as the rest of the City they would have had more than 300 additional voters. On the south side of Heritage Hill (3-14, and 3-16) 157 fewer voters showed up to vote than in 2009; and if one calculated the expected average vote, the loss was more than 350 voters. These are not Tea Party enclaves. Rather with their mix of poor and minorities, the results suggest that the income tax campaign had failed to connect with them. The loss of the votes did not doom the measure, but rather took away its cushion.
Meanwhile a more dangerous tale was being told in the SE side.
Hesitation in the South
In 2009, even the conservative precincts came out solidly for the transit measure, with every precinct voting in favor. A different story got told in 2010. Where Yes vote share had expanded in First and Second wards, in the Third it shrank. None voted as strongly as they had in 2009, indeed seven precincts slipped over into the No side. However looking at the overall numerical totals, the Burton precincts extending from Plymouth & Burton to Calvin College (junkies, that’s: 54/38, 53/39, 5) not only voted large, but came close to outright defeat of the measure. How do we explain this? Is this merely a pocket of conservative Republicans, immune to the charms of the campaign? Perhaps. But there is more.
The slippage in the SE side compared to the North and West Side neighborhoods suggests that the campaign did not really addressed the issue. It made a classic mistake: it assumed its victory. There is likely also a cultural shift at work as well: appeals were crafted that worked with the sort of West Side populism (aka Tea Party and before that Reagan Dems) that campaigners knew and understood. The SE political culture was not picked up, and so the native Republicanism took over (another political truism: no campaign loses to the default position). Finally, there is the problem of the City itself. The missing minority and urban voters would have put the measure solidly in the black. Again, the disappearance of these voters points to a failure of the Income Tax campaign itself, either in strategy, or more likely, in execution.
Are there lessons here? Those running on the SE side had better heed them.