Friday, April 2, 2021

Looking back at the 2017 Atlanta Mayoral Race

As the City of Atlanta gears up for City Council and Mayoral elections this year, I am revisiting the 2017 Mayoral race.  It was a wide-open race with 11 total candidates on the ballot and no incumbent.  I think we can see some very interesting patterns in both the general election and the runoff that might have some implications for 2021 or beyond.  

Recapping the General Election

Despite the lengthy ballot, the general election was a really a three-way race between Councilmember Keisha Lance Bottoms, former Council President Cathy Woolard, and City Councilmember Mary Norwood.  Norwood had lost in 2009 to then-State Senator Kasim Reed by 714 votes in a runoff.  Bottoms and Norwood would make the runoff, but the 3rd through 7th place candidates combined for half of the total votes.  In theory, there were a lot of votes up for grabs in the runoff. 

This was an incredibly diverse set of candidates.  The quick rundown of each major candidates main selling points:

  • Keisha Lance Bottoms was positioned as the heir-apparent to Mayor Kasim Reed and whatever is left of the "Atlanta Machine". He endorsed her and she had been seen as a key ally in City Council during his term.  
  • Mary Norwood was a longtime Buckhead councilmember with some idiosyncrasies that make her a little hard to pigeon hole. Many saw her as essentially a Republican, but she had a long track record of working all over the city as well.
  • Cathy Woolard was an early champion of the Atlanta BeltLine and had been a City Council member (and then President) since the late 90's.  She was the first openly gay elected official in Georgia history, and a champion of most "progressive" causes.
  • Peter Aman was a business consultant and the former COO of the city.  He pitched himself as the most competent candidate.  
  • Vincent Fort was a long-serving State Senator known as a bit of a rabble rouser. He spoke frequently about issues of economic inequality and poverty.
  • Ceasar Mitchell was the then-President of City Council, was a real estate lawyer by profession, and was seen as the most business-friendly of the Black candidates. 
  • Kwanza Hall was a longtime Council member representing Old Fourth Ward, representing a racially and economically diverse district. He hoped to carry that crossover appeal to the rest of the city.  
There was a little bit for everyone here.  No matter what issues you cared the most about, you could find a candidate who shared your priorities.  This slate of options lets us make some inferences about the various divisions and factions within the city.

The Three Atlantas

These three candidates split the city into three main factions which you can see in the map at the top of this post.  Norwood carried Buckhead, Bottoms carried majority Black precincts, and Woolard carried majority white Intown liberal enclaves.  These neatly cleave the city into what could almost be considered three different cities.  

Despite the fact that no single candidate carried more than 26% of the vote, the election outcome was very racially divided.  There is a incredibly strong correlation between the racial demographics of the precincts and whether those precincts voted for a white or Black candidates. White candidates got a majority of votes in every precinct that was more than 60% white, and Black candidates got a majority in all but one precinct that was less than 40% white.  

Precincts between 30% and 60% white actually had less correlation to voting outcomes than other precincts.  While the city as a whole had a 97% correlation between how white a precinct was and the combined vote share of white candidates, these more diverse precincts only had a 26% correlation.  

Intown Liberals Couldn't Pull the Lever for Norwood

The runoff once again pit Mary Norwood against the "Atlanta Machine".  The race quickly became divided along racial lines.  Mary Norwood had made racially charged allegations that voters had been "bused in" to vote for Kasim Reed in 2009, and the state Democratic party ran ads alleging she was a Republican. 

Kasim Reed's administration was (and four years later is still) under investigation by federal law enforcement for pay-for-play activities, although nothing then or now has been alleged against him. Several aides have gone to prison, however. Keisha Lance Bottoms had somewhat controversially been appointed by Mayor Reed as the head of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority while also serving on City Council, collecting two city paychecks at the same time.  

In the end, Norwood lost another narrow race, this time by 691 votes. The outcome closely mirrored the general election's racial divisions.  There was a 98.6% correlation between Norwood's runoff vote and the combined vote share of white candidates in the general election.  Basically, if you voted for a white candidate in the general election, you were 98% likely to vote for Mary Norwood, and vice versa for Black candidates and Keisha Lance Bottoms. 

The most interesting aspect of the runoff, however, is that the Cathy Woolard faction of the city did not vote as closely along those racial lines as the rest of the city.  Mary Norwood improved on the combined votes of white general election candidates throughout most of the city, with the main exception of the Intown liberal white precincts on the East side of the city.  

These precincts also saw the biggest decline in turnout from the general to the runoff.  The overall turnout for the runoff was 95% of the general election.  Almost everyone who voted in the general came back for the runoff.  In precincts Norwood and Bottom won, runoff turnout was 98.5% of the general election.  However, in the precincts Cathy Woolard won only 88% of voters showed up again.  

White liberal east side Atlanta faced an unpleasant choice - vote for the another Kasim Reed "machine" candidate, or vote for the Buckhead Republican.  Enough decided they couldn't do either, and stayed home - giving the race to Keisha Lance Bottoms.  

Divisions Hidden below the Headlines 

One interesting subplot is that while six of the 11 candidates were Black men, none carried a single precinct.  Only Mitchell, Hall, and Fort got a meaningful share of votes, and most of Hall's votes came from his District 2 base.  None got much support in Buckhead, unsurprisingly.  Mitchell got better representation in the more affluent parts of Black Atlanta along Cascade, while Fort did quite well in Pittsburg, Adair Park, Sylvan Hills, and Lakewood Heights. These patterns closely match the incomes for each area.  Perhaps it should not be surprising that the real estate lawyer Mitchell did better in more affluent parts of Black Atlanta.

What might be surprising, given that each of these candidates got less than 10% of the total vote, is that there were many precincts one of these candidates got between 20% and 30% of the vote.  In a lot of precincts, they combined for 30% to 40% of the vote.  Mayor Bottoms might have swept Black precincts in the runoff, but there were sizeable portions of Black Atlanta who preferred other candidates with not connected to the machine or with a different set of priorities.  

Multiple Coalitions Possible in the Future

What can we learn about Atlanta for 2021 or beyond?

One (and this is not a particularly unique observation) we are still a very racially divided city.  Despite what many parts of Atlanta will want to believe about themselves, white Atlantans have a hard time voting for a black candidate when there are viable white candidates. Many white Atlantans who see themselves as racially progressive nevertheless voted for a white quasi-Republican.  As an asides, Mary Norwood's post-Trump affidavit in lawyer Sidney Powell's "Kraken" lawsuit alleging an array of classic racially loaded electioneering charges should confirm the DPG's 2017 characterization of Norwood.

The allegations of corruption within the Reed administration and his vocal support of Bottoms likely had a big impact on white Atlantan's support for Bottoms. Allegations of corruption among Black administrations certainly have a racially charged history, although in this case there seems to have been some fire amidst all the smoke.  However, it's hard not to be disappointed that on some level white Atlantans are just more comfortable voting for a white candidate. 

Two, the swingiest voting block is the East side of Atlanta, from Grant Park up through Morningside.  This will be where close elections in the future are won or lost.  While this slice of Atlanta may tend to vote along racial lines, more of these votes are up for grabs than in Buckhead or SW Atlanta.

Three, there are interesting potential coalitions in Southwest Atlanta that might be meaningful for 2021 or for future races.  If Felicia Moore can carry Mary Norwood, Peter Aman, and Vincent Fort's votes, she's at 42%.  That is a strange coalition, but it appears to be what she is trying to put together.  Moore has historically been considered very progressive, and is running on a platform focused on crime.  If she can get half of Cathy Woolard's voters, she's at 50%.  

Alternatively, it's possible to see a Ceasar Mitchell type candidate build a coalition based more on income and a pro-business status quo - Mitchell, Aman, and Norwood votes combine for 42% of the city electorate.  Get enough Morningside Woolard voters, and you are close to a majority.  Many Atlantans concerned about corruption in Kasim Reed's administration voted for Bottoms reluctantly.  It's possible that enough of the city gets tired of machine candidates some day to make this kind of coalition possible.  In Bottoms' defense, there have been far fewer rumors or concerns about her administration - although the goings on at Fort McPherson deserve scrutiny.  

Another other obvious coalition is the one that Mayor Bottoms narrowly pulled off in 2017 - combining Black Atlanta with just enough of the East side.  Bottoms' prime time TV appearances during last summers Black Lives Matter protests likely won her quite a lot of support among these East siders who were impressed with her response - at least if my personal social media is any indication.  

Finally, the most dangerous potential coalition would be one based strictly on race.  It's not hard to see a less divisive white candidate pick up the same level of Buckhead support as Norwood but get just enough white voters who stayed home in the runoff or voted for Ceasar Mitchell to get over the top.  I will probably have more to say about this scenario another day, but I am glad that it is not something that we face in 2021.  The 2017 runoff split the city along racial lines and stoked resentment among white Buckhead residents. The city has declined from 57% Black in 2000 to 49% Black in 2019, and the white population has increased from 33% to 39%. The traditional power structures of the city are stressing under this pressure.  While these demographic trends have stabilized a bit over the last five years, I do not like to think what it would mean for a white candidate to win the Mayor's office in this plurality black race, at least in an election divided along racial lines.  

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