So we are going to have a Democratic primary for Mayor of Buffalo this year. It happens pretty regularly, but unlike the past several events, this year’s contest will feature the two major citywide elected officials, the incumbent mayor and the city comptroller.
Mayor Byron Brown will be seeking his fourth term, something only done once before, by Mayor Jimmy Griffin, who served from 1978 through 1993. Comptroller Mark Schroeder is in his second term in that office. Brown previously was the Masten District Councilmember and a State Senator. Schroeder was a County Legislator and State Assemblyman before winning his current position.
A primary election for mayor is decided by some combination of the usual factors, which include name recognition, popularity, issues relating to city services, key endorsements, campaign finances, and voter turnout throughout the city.
Mayor Brown likely has higher voter recognition than Schroeder. If you are to believe the only poll that has been thus far discussed (supplied by the Brown campaign), Brown is more popular than Schroeder. For an incumbent to lose an election for an executive office there needs to be some overriding issue or issues that have stirred public interest or concern. There does not seem to be any such issue or issues. While there are always complaints, the streets get plowed and the garbage gets picked up. You might say that Brown keeps the trains running on time.
That’s an old expression, but some might see the subject as a segue into the question of where a new train station should be located in Buffalo. Governor Cuomo appointed Mayor Brown to head the committee reviewing the station question and a recommendation is due soon. Schroeder has come out strongly in favor of putting the facility at the old New York Central Terminal on the East Side. The Mayor will need to defend whatever the committee suggests, which is most likely to be a downtown location. An average of 103 Amtrak passengers per day used the existing Buffalo station last year, so it doesn’t seem likely that there will be a whole lot of public concern about the station, one way or another.
City finances and taxes could be another campaign issue, but that does not seem likely. Residential property taxes have been stable for many years. The City has a healthy financial reserve and its credit rating has improved. There is plenty of political credit to go around for the mayor, the comptroller and the Common Council. Good for all of them, but no particular advantage for either Brown or Schroeder.
Mayor Brown will enter the primary with the support of most of the local Democratic political establishment, including the key endorsement of the Erie County Democratic Committee. Comptroller Schroeder has not announced any major political endorsements to date.
Brown, as of the January 2017 Board of Elections filings, had more than twice the amount of campaign cash on hand as Schroeder had ($340,619 to $157,757). An incumbent always has easier access to raising money than a challenger has.
So all of the foregoing leaves the primary election to be decided in large part by things like on-the-street activities and voter turnout. While it is as true in politics as in financial investments that past performance is no guarantee of future results, a look at those past performances does provide some guidance about how things can be influenced and may turn out.
There have been many Democratic mayoral primaries over the ages (the classic being the Griffin/Foschio/Eve contest in 1977). This analysis focuses on the last four primaries:
- 2001 – Tony Masiello versus Beverly Gray
- 2005 – Byron Brown versus Kevin Gaughan and Steven Calvaneso
- 2009 – Brown versus Mickey Kearns
- 2013 – Brown versus Bernie Tolbert
None of those elections was particularly close. The incumbent won the three (2001, 2009 and 2013) where an incumbent was running. It could be argued that the strength of the opposition to the incumbent this year is greater than it was it was in those four previous elections.
The past turnout results in some city councilmanic districts are considerably better than in others both in terms of percentages of the votes cast as part of the city district totals and in total raw votes. A candidate will go where they perceive their strength to be. The actual results also demonstrate some opportunities where an increase in turnout might potentially impact this September’s results.
Here are some highlights gleaned from previous results:
- Votes in the Masten District consistently lead the other districts. Over the past four primaries the district has produced an average of 15.1 percent of the total City vote.
- The Ellicott and Delaware Districts have not been very far behind Masten in voter shares. Ellicott averaged 14.2 percent; Delaware 13.9 percent.
- The three poorest performing districts in terms of average percentage of total City turnout have been Niagara (7.1 percent); North (7.4 percent); and Fillmore (8.1 percent).
- Year-to-year comparisons of the share of the citywide total vote show fairly consistent percentages (variances generally of 1 percent or less) in the Delaware, Fillmore, Lovejoy, Masten, Niagara and University districts.
- There have been larger year-to-year swings in share percentages in Ellicott, North and South.
- The total number of citywide votes has averaged 31,971 in the four primaries. The 2001 and 2005 totals were very close to that average, while 2009 far exceeded the average (at 41,671 votes) and 2013 was far below the average (at 23,018).
- When you compare the June 2016 Democratic enrollment figures by district with the average share of the primary vote by district you find Delaware, Ellicott, Masten, and South producing larger shares of the total city vote than their district enrollment accounts for.
- On the other hand Fillmore, Lovejoy, Niagara, North and University produced smaller shares of the citywide total vote than the districts’ shares of total citywide Democratic enrollment.
- Mayor Brown’s home district, which he once represented on the Common Council, Masten, has been very good to him, producing an average of 15.4 percent of the total city vote in each of his three campaigns for mayor.
- Comptroller Schroeder’s South District is also the home of County Clerk candidate and current Assemblyman Mickey Kearns. The District produced a large margin for Kearns in his 2009 primary campaign again Brown, but even in that year the Masten District gave Brown nearly 1,500 more votes than South produced for Kearns.
For someone planning out a citywide campaign there are lessons to be learned from these statistics. Depending on where a candidate’s base of votes is, there may be opportunities to try to draw out a larger percentage of the Democratic enrollment to boost their chances. One might also find that the vote in some districts might represent some sort of a peak vote opportunity, meaning that a candidate needs to look elsewhere for support.
The first political work that I was given in a campaign, eons ago in a Max McCarthy campaign for Congress, was to drill down even further, right down to the individual election districts to look at past voting results compared with party enrollment. Max’s campaign manager, the late George Heffernan, called it “the marketing approach to politics.” There weren’t even calculators then and past results and enrollment numbers were not available to download electronically. Today’s voter targeting is much more sophisticated and robust. It still might not lead to the desired results. See Clinton, Hillary, 2016.
So take the past results for what they are worth – an indication of what might happen this September; a guide to where opportunities exist.
If any reader is interested in taking a look at the district-by-district Democratic primary results, just send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be happy to send you an electronic spreadsheet on the subject.
The Democratic primary will determine the next mayor
It looks like Mark Schroeder will not receive the Conservative Party endorsement. The Republican Party leadership likely had something to do with that decision, since the Conservative line would keep Schroeder in the November election if he were to lose the Democratic primary. The Republicans will want to keep city turnout down to help their countywide candidates.
Schroeder could circulate petitions for an independent line on the November ballot, keeping him in the game. Such moves, however, usually fail.
The next mayor will likely be determined in September.