Posted by: sweeneyblog | November 12, 2013

Election Analysis: What happened to the Port races?

For politicos watching the results over the last week, it might have been a bit stupefying to see Whatcom elect four unapologetically progressive County Council candidates, while the Democratic candidates for Port barely scraped by (incumbent Mike McAuley) or came up short (tragically Renata Kowalczyk). Why did the Democratic candidates for Port have such a tough time?

It is always difficult to speculate on election results, because the numbers never explain exactly what goes on between the ears of every voter. You can form a hypothesis and look for facts to confirm or disprove your hypothesis, but in the end, like most social science, it is educated guesswork. I’ll present my theories and support here, but feel free to discuss or disprove my theories in the comments below.

One factor in the results is the disportionate level of third party engagement. The coal-funded PAC, SAVEWhatcom, pushed a slate of six candidates (Port and County) while Washington Conservation Voters (WCV)only did expenditures on behalf of the County Candidates. Considering that the County Council will be the ones with the legal authority to approve or stop the proposed facility at Cherry Point, it seemed like a strategic decision on the side of WCV to just focus on the council.

Similarly, there was much less media coverage of the Port races which lends support to incumbents and those with common sounding names. The Stranger made the case a few years back that if they have an anglo-saxon name and they are going up against someone with a more ethnic sounding name, the anglo-saxon name does very well. Ken Bell and Dan Robbins are easy to remember, all-american names while McAuley and Kowalcyzk are little more challenging.

However the end result is that many many Democrats voted for the County Council candidates and then stopped voting, or voted for the conservatives for the Port races. Here is a map showing the dropoff:

Darker the blue

Blue is Port>Council, Red is Council>Port

What is this terrifying tapestry? The blue is areas where the left-leaning Port candidates did better than the left leaning Council candidates. Red is where the Port candidates did worse than the County candidates. Here is what jumps out to me:

  • Renata and McAuley did very well in Lynden compared to the Port candidates. This means that several conservative voters supported them.
  • The Port candidates did not do very well in Sudden Valley or Lummi Island.

Putting these together, it looks like Renata and McAuley had cross-partisan appeal . . . and that’s what hurt them. This was a base election, the people who turned out to vote wanted to vote for their people and McAuley and Renata had put up a conservative front which gained them a few votes in Lynden but lost them gobs of votes in Sudden Valley, as well as around WWU. While their strategy might have been very successful in a high turnout election where the independents vote in droves, this year, it did not work.

Next post, I look at the curious case of Clayton Petree.



  1. I like your theory about it being a partisan election, but maybe I need to see your map for Bellingham to understand the split party tickets–people who voted in both races, but voted for the liberal council slate and then voted for Robbins. Or am I reading those stats wrong?

    • You’ve got it right. I’ll breakdown the Bellingham map later today 🙂

  2. I think messaging places a relatively small role. Most voters don’t pay that much attention to these sorts of races so the challenge is to a) get them to vote at all, and b) pick the right candidate. When it came time to pick, those who went to the trouble to vote didn’t know who they should choose. You could have stopped after the third paragraph. I think there’s your answer.

    • That’s part of why I presented several theories – the numbers are never conclusive and I believe it is some combination of all these factors.

  3. I think the Whatcom County council races were clearly a referendum on coal, and that’s why they swept the county. The Port races weren’t ostensibly about coal, and county residents don’t have the heinous mess on the waterfront on their minds. City residents barely do. So then it became about whether the voter liked the name, or the hair color or maybe they saw a picture of the candidate or they didn’t know and threw a dart. Gads are we that stupid? Judging from the fact that Kershner got elected the first time by putting a cutesy heart on her sign, I have to say “yes.”

  4. I think it would have helped if the voters were given a better idea of what kinds of decisions the Port of Bellingham Commissioners are responsible for. People need to understand what is at stake, in other words, why should it matter to them as they select their Port candidate/s on their ballot. People knew that coal was a major issue in the county council election because the public, for the most part by now, knows the county council will be the deciders on the coal terminal permit/s, but they didn’t know the major issues at stake for the Port Commission race, so voters may have not simply had enough information, or the right information needed, to make the choices.

    Also, I think it would have helped to add the 2 Port candidates, McAuley and Renata K. to the flyers that went out about the progressive county council candidates. So, if you want to vote for these 4 progressive candidates then it is suggested you also would like these 2 Port candidates. Kind of like the concept of suggested choices on iTunes Genius playlists or on Pandora–If you like this music then you should like these artists.

    • I agree with Sandy Robson. The actual stands on Port issues (like the Waterfront plans) weren’t presented loud and clear by the candidates or by the media, nor covered very much at all by the media.

  5. On the other hand, Ken Bell’s ostensible message of “waterfront cleanup” was loud and clear and appealed to low-information voters, whether or not that would actually be true. (He subsequently attacked Mike in several radio ads for wanting more thorough dredging in the Phase I waterway clean-up near C Street). Ken Bell has a background in PR, he ran a tight campaign, and he raised a lot of money, albeit a large chunk of that came out of his own pocket. He didn’t skimp on things like signs or mailers. Personally, with Mike’s record and name recognition, I think he could have done a lot better. But I’m not complaining.

  6. Probably, one of the most damning things as far as electing candidates on a “party” ticket (remember, these are all supposedly ‘non-partisan’ races) was the comment in one of our local papers that, especially in Renate’s case, the two candidates were very much alike on all issues. In addition to that, much of the county incorrectly views the Port as pertaining to only one of the cities and towns in the county, let alone, the rural county – witnessed by the name “Port of Bellingham.” While Mike had the incumbent advantage, and the City of Lynden, at least, realized that the Port effects everyone, for the most part, Riley’s assessment carried for the non-Bellingham area. Maybe we ought to rename it “Port of Whatcom.”

  7. I was also wondering about the “ethnic name” theory for the POB candidates. There should be a Whatcom corollary, though- Dutch names work out in the County…

  8. I think it comes down to “Who is Renata Kowalczyk and what has she done in Whatcom COunty?” Renata is no doubt a fine person and her stands on the issues appear solid but she is not local. Better luck next time – and in the meantime, how can Renata do some work to further progressive issues in the COUnty? Pay her dues, in other words.

    • Wow, seriously? “Pay her dues?” Explain to me who Dan is and what he’s done for Whatcom County. Never mind for progressive issues. FYI, I’m a ‘Hamster born and bred, as are my parents (my mother graduated with Robbins and owned a successful business – in other words, actually created jobs that lasted), so I have a pretty good handle on what Dan has done – or not, as the case may be.

      For that matter, coming to this country with $20 bucks in her pocket and 3 sentences in English, working her way up in the business world, earning an MBA from an Ivy League institution, and then choosing to come here and helping local businesses grow and succeed counts as “paying her dues” in life. At least in my book. And for my money (and it is mine, and yours), the Port should be run by people who are qualified, not just people who have paid imaginary dues with a political party.

      • I’m not a fan of party politics and so vote based on an evaluation of the candidates. I certainly didn’t say she hadn’t “paid her imaginary dues within a political party” – that’s your creation. I pointed out she was an implant and noted her resume was a bit light on actual achievements in Whatcom County – that these contributed to her loss.

        I said she should do more work in the county on progressive issues – perhaps by, for example, writing even one article on the Port and what she would do differently. I found it hard to determine how she had any knowledge of the POrt or its operations, and therefore, how she was “qualified” to run it.

  9. Renata has been paying her dues – she’s been very involved, and made important contributions with Whatcom Investing Network, Transition Whatcom, Sustainable Connections, and more.

    • How do these have any connection with the POrt?

  10. The county council candidates doorbelled. A lot. And their campaign teams doorbelled. Talking to voters on their porches and on the phone not only helps you get elected but helps turn a candidate into a more effective elected official.

    A message doesn’t matter a whole lot if you don’t raise the money to get that message out there. But in a county like ours, a campaign can talk to enough voters to make a difference.

  11. Michael McAuley’s last name had been a tangible asset in his first election, when he unseated an unpopular incumbent. This time around, he faced a well-financed and media-savvy opponent with no public-service record. Given general public disappointment at the Port’s shenanigans (mostly due to Walker and his puppet, not due to McAuley), there was a disadvantage this time to being an incumbent commissioner.

    Very, very few elections in NW Washington are won or lost on issues. Most voters are unaware of the issues choices represented by voting for either of the two candidates for any given position. It seems that successful politicians establish a “brand” and then coast on forever, the way “comfort food” is always welcome to the palate. Or the way Shiraz, Cabernet, or Zinfandel are always safe choices.

    Hell, we were so disengaged on issues here in the City Council races, that we didn’t even have a friggin’ contest in two positions!

    As a volunteer on the recent Whatcom Wins (County Council) campaign, we succeeded through enormous effort in getting an unusual injection of issues, including the coal-export project. But I have to admit, sadly, that this injection of issues was unusual for NW Washington. We benefited from the pre-sensitization of the greater-B’ham electorate to the coal issues.

    The City Council election was, by contrast, pristinely free of real honest discussion of issues, with the sole exception of Bob Burr. So was the port election, and it was pristinely free of a Bob Burr.

    Abe Jacobson (whose tastes run to comfort food, comfort wine, but not comfort politics).

  12. I knocked on several hundred doors, gave out about 500 palm cards, all with the Port candidates’ names, and I-522 endorsement; made a bunch of hours of Whatcom Wins calls, always included the Port candidates in those calls. I couldn’t understand why the Port wasn’t included in the Whatcom Wins campaign, thought it was odd from the beginning. I think it would have put Renata over. Maybe next time more ideas should be taken from PCO’s before those decisions are made.

    • It is easy to say that we should have included the Port, knowing today that the County Council clocked in at 54%, but if we had diluted the message, it might have been much closer. We don’t know.

  13. I saw the Democrat’s color slate card with port candidates color photos included.

  14. […] all the flurry over curious Port results, Doug Ericksen for Congress and my all-male Odds and Ends last week, the recent activity on the […]

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