This fall would see D.C.’s “most competitive general election ever,” David Catania’s campaign kept insisting.
When polls showed Muriel Bowser leading by big margins, Catania and his top strategist Ben Young insisted they were using out of date methodology. The electorate had changed, they swore; the 1,100 educated, young professional types showing up here to rent $2,000-plus studio apartments weren’t showing up in pollsters’ models because they hadn’t been here the last time D.C. had a contested mayoral race. Which, they also swore, D.C. hadn’t ever had, not like this one would be. Catania was picking up Democrats! Bowser’s base was soft! He’d turn out independents! We’d all be shocked on Election Day!
And then, when the D.C. Board of Elections finally got around to announcing the fully counted results on Nov. 4 (well after the 11 p.m. newscasts had moved on to the weather), none of that turned out to be remotely true. Bowser won by nearly 20 points, and the race could have been called after the early vote totals were posted online. The 2014 general election wasn’t the most competitive in D.C.’s history, at least not once the votes were in; the 1994 mayor’s race, between Marion Barry and Carol Schwartz (who made a return appearance this time), was much closer, and 20 years later, no one has any trouble remembering how that one turned out.
Most observers bought the argument, at least in concept: The media covered the election like a close contest, not like a foregone conclusion. Washington City Paper, WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, NBC4, and the Washington Post combined to spend thousands of dollars on polls; there was a lot of fretting about debates; prominent Democrats endorsed Catania, a risk few politicians would bother taking if they knew their man would lose so easily. Why?
Write part of it off to the one bias every journalist will admit to—for a good story. A blowout win by the Democrat is nowhere near as interesting as a truly contested race. Plus, Bowser spent most of the summer doing the kinds of things that do win elections, but don’t tend to draw much media attention: Building a massive field organization, meeting privately with influential people all around the city, raising money constantly. Catania, in contrast, ran around desperately seeking coverage, and getting it, with detailed policy statements on everything from education to housing.
But in retrospect, it’s easier to realize that Catania’s whole theory was based on false assumptions. Sure, Bowser had won only a plurality in the Democratic primary. But there were seven other candidates on the ballot, and she’d been building momentum fast; if the primary was in May, instead of April, she’d probably have been well over 50 percent. Yes, Catania did a good job of distributing sky-blue “Democrats for David” yard signs, especially in rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. But yard signs, as political consultants love to tell candidates and reporters alike, don’t vote. The people who had them on their lawns probably did, but that’s such a small share of the overall electorate that it’s impossible to draw useful predictions from the signs. And sure, the city’s demographics are changing rapidly. But millennials who move here for jobs connected to national politics and policy don’t vote in local elections anywhere near as reliably as people who’ve been here for decades. Which means those old models from campaigns past aren’t quite as outdated as Catania wanted them to be.
Will there be a day when the District does see a truly competitive general election? Probably, though with voter registration still tilted overwhelmingly Democratic, it may be an ex-Democrat turned independent, rather than an ex-Republican, who makes it so. But after all the talk this year turned out to be so much empty spin, it may be a harder argument to sell next time around.