Can You Win a Primary with Renters?

In upstate New York, the City of Buffalo had an upset election last year.  India Walton, a 39 year old “democratic socialist and newcomer,” beat an incumbent 4 term mayor.  According to analysis by Russell Weaver, she won largely with the support of renters via voter registration drives.

Weaver’s research suggests 64% of Walton’s support came from precincts where renters heavily outnumbered owners.  US Census figures show Buffalo households are 60% renters, almost twice the national average.  

You Can Win A Primary by Registering Renters

So, yes, you can win a primary with renters.  Of course, not all the time.  Buffalo may be unique.  But renters can be the deciding factor.

Weaver’s victory was sweet, but short.  Weaver’s opponent, a fellow Democrat, launched a write-in campaign, reportedly with support from developers and Republicans, and certainly homeowners.  Weaver lost the election by over 10,000 votes, 38,338 to 25,198.  

Unexpected Coalitions

Weaver may have lost, but she put together an unexpected coalition.  According to the liberal CDELF, “Before the Buffalo mayoral election, one of the most common refrains about leftist candidates for major offices was that they mostly only win educated white voters. Their embrace of “socialist” policies, it’s been argued, doesn’t appeal to working class communities and communities of color.”  Weaver’s progressive race developed a multi-ethnic, workers based movement in part with a direct appeal to renters.

Walton, a nurse and mother of four, describes herself as a progressive Democrat.  She said the campaign was “traumatic,” and just wanted to return to connecting with her family.  In January, she has reportedly accepted a local organizing position with the pro-union Working Families Party headed by Maurice Mitchell.

But wait.  Could Walton have won the general election with a voter registration program like RegisterRenters?  It might seem like a long shot, but look at the numbers:  Buffalo has an eligible voting population of 215,442, but only 63,556 turned out.  About 125,000 of voting age rent their homes.  While every year, 17% of Buffalo residents move, that rate is far lower for homeowners.  So it could be as high as one third for renters.  So about 42,000 renters who are eligible to vote move every year, and must re-register.  In fact, upwards of 156,000 eligible voters were listed as registered to vote in Buffalo, even though recent movers are not purged.  So the unregistered and the moving renters together, you get a “likely unregistered population” of over 100,000 renters.

Get Out the Renter Vote by Helping Them Register

If Walton had just got a quarter of those unregistered renters to register and turn out to vote for her, the general election might have looked very different.  But could she?

Our estimate is that 150 volunteers can produce, package and deliver 100,000 voter registration packets in over two weekends.  Fifty volunteers would prepare the packets and then 100 would deliver them. We have see 10% of these packets being used to register to vote.  So, to be successful, Walton would have needed to have two waves, with the last one in the fall to catch as many students as possible.  The cost for 200,000 packets is about 10-15 cents each, or $20,000 to $30,000.

The scope of this effort may have been beyond the abilities of Walton’s campaign, but for an office this important resources are usually available.  We’ve been able to raise $15,000 for less than $1,000, and that happened before the Internet and social media.

Walton ran a very good campaign.  Most candidates do not understand making room for registering renters as an effective and cheap path to victory.  But change is in the air.



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