I suppose it’s a bit simplistic to say “he got more votes than the other guy”, but one way or the other that’s what happened.
Sylvester Turner’s 24-year quest for the mayor’s office was realized by a narrow margin Saturday night, driven by overwhelming support from black voters and a robust effort to push supporters to the polls.
The tallies showed Houston’s long trend of voting in racial blocs held in this year’s runoff, by far the closest in 12 years.
Conservative businessman Bill King took 71 percent of the vote in the city’s majority-white voting precincts, where residents also turned out in the highest numbers. Turner won a whopping 93 percent of the vote in majority-black precincts, however, erasing King’s turnout advantage. Turner also had an edge in the city’s two predominantly Latino council districts, giving him the boost he needed to secure a 4,100-vote victory.
Texas Southern University political scientist Michael Adams said the racial polarization reflected in the tallies is consistent with Houston’s electoral history. Adams’ research on black candidates’ performance in Houston elections from 1997 to 2009 shows Turner performed slightly worse than would be expected in Anglo precincts.
“Turner’s success in only a handful of majority-white precincts, all inside the 610 Loop, is interesting. He performed worse than other Democrats had in similar precincts,” Adams said. “His success is almost entirely attributable to the overwhelming vote in the African-American community.”
Turner lost the city’s progressive urban district west of downtown, District C, by more than 10 points, but Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said the tallies are not necessarily a sign of racial polarization.
“It had more to do with the effectiveness of the Bill King campaign,” Jones said. “King’s message regarding the city’s fiscal crisis resonated with those voters in part because District C is the most educated and arguably the most politically interested council district. If it was going to resonate with any district that was a non-core conservative district, it was District C.”
Here’s another map of how the precincts voted, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m the wrong person to objectively evaluate King’s campaign, because I was never buying what he was selling. I will say three things about the race he ran, then move on:
1. The timing was good for him and his gloomy economic message. In 2015, with the local economy sputtering and some bills coming due for the city, voters were more receptive to his message than they likely would have been in, say, 2013. It also helped that the sky-is-falling crescendo about pensions has been incessantly drilled into people, thanks in no small part to King’s own column in the Chronicle and his apparent effect on their editorial board. This was a good year for that message.
2. King basically had the Republican vote to himself. Remember, at the start of the year Oliver Pennington was a candidate for Mayor. I think it’s fair to say that he would have eaten into King’s November vote total had he stayed on the ballot, and it’s quite reasonable to think that the two of them could have split the vote to the point of letting Adrian Garcia slip into second place. One need only look at At Large #1 this year and At Large #3 in 2013 to see the scenario I’m talking about. Yes, I know, Steve Costello is a Republican, but come on. He’s a pro-HERO, pro-“rain tax” Republican. Who else was going to get the Polland/Woodfill/Hotze vote? For that matter, King was lucky that the only true wingnut anti-HERO candidate on the ballot that could have sucked votes away from him on his right was Ben Hall, whom the local GOP establishment warned its voters away from for not being an actual Republican. Surely if an Eric Dick or Dave Wilson had decided to run, that would have made it harder for King to get into the final round.
3. Still and all, King ran a good campaign. I can’t think of any obvious mistakes he made, none that would have cost him any votes anyway. He might have unleashed some negative mail on Turner in the runoff, but looking at how he actually did in the Anglo Dem areas, it’s hard to say that he could have done much better. Unless things go badly wrong for Turner, I don’t think he’d have as much success in a rematch in 2019 (or in 2017, if term limits hadn’t been changed), but he took advantage of the opportunities he had at this time and came close to winning. There’s no shame in that.
Beyond that, every election is different. I’d be hesitant to draw any broad conclusions from this race. Barring legal intervention, the next city races are in 2019, and by then this year will be ancient history. Next year is completely different as well. Learn from what did and didn’t work and move on to the next election.
One more thing before I can move on to the next election: I have a nit to pick with this Daily Kos election roundup that states “Houston leans Democratic, but poor turnout from Team Blue almost allowed King to become the city’s first non-Democratic mayor since Republican Jim McConn left office in 1982.” This is what happens when out of towners try to make sense of our news. Turnout was fine in Democratic precincts. King did as well as he did in part by winning some Democratic crossover votes, and in part by giving Republicans a reason to vote. Both Turner and King had ground games going, and Turner’s was very effective. Let’s not fall into oversimplified narratives about what happened; that does no one any good.