Photo looking up at Seattle's City Hall building exterior.

The 2021 Seattle Mayor’s Race by the Numbers

by Erica C. Barnett

With just over a month to go before the 2021 Seattle mayoral election, both Lorena González and Bruce Harrell have amassed financial support worth well over a million dollars, including both direct contributions (which are capped at $550) and independent expenditures (which are unlimited). But a closer look at campaign contributions and expenditures reveals key differences between the candidates’ supporters and how they’re spending their campaign funds.

As of Tuesday, Sept. 28, González had raised about $661,000 and spent around $509,000, including both direct expenditures and debt owed to campaign consultants, pollsters, and fundraisers. Harrell has spent about the same amount as González but has raised about $300,000 more, leaving him with more cash on hand heading into October. 

The two candidates’ funding looks considerably more balanced, however, when you include independent expenditures (IE) that PACs and other interest groups are making on each candidate’s behalf. An IE campaign funded by large real-estate interests has raised nearly $915,000 to boost Harrell’s campaign, while a labor-backed IE has raised nearly as much — $828,000 — to support González. (IE campaigns are separate from candidates’ campaigns and can’t coordinate their unrestricted spending with the campaigns themselves.) 

Essential Workers for Lorena has spent more money than Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future (including more than $110,000 on dried cherries that were included in a primary-election mailer), leaving the campaign with about $80,000 less on hand. The graphic below represents, from right to left, the amount of money the two IE campaigns have spent, how much they have raised, and the amount they have left on hand.

Campaign spending reflects a candidate’s priorities — what they think it will take to get out the vote and bring undecided voters to their side. Both Harrell and González have invested heavily so far in campaign literature (mailers, flyers to drop off at voters’ doors, and the like) and advertising, including cable TV (for both candidates) and print ads (for Harrell, whose ad buys included the Seattle Medium, Seattle Gay News, and Northwest Asian Weekly.) González’s campaign spent more than $50,000 on polling and spent twice as much on in-house campaign expenses (about $108,000) as Harrell (about $51,000) while spending almost the same amount of money on consultants. TV ads are considered the most effective way of getting voters’ attention, although the amount of money campaigns still spend on mailings suggests that they still have some impact (or that the consultants who profit from producing them have convinced candidates that they’re worth the money).

Sorting by neighborhood, West Seattle resident González has the largest number of contributors in the following ZIP codes: 98103 (Wallingford, Fremont, Phinney Ridge), 98118 (southeast Seattle), 98122 (the Central District), 98116 (West Seattle, including Alki), and 98144 (Beacon Hill to Mount Baker.) The top five ZIP codes for Harrell contributors are 98115 (Roosevelt, Wedgwood, and Green Lake), 98118, 98112 (Madison Park, North Capitol Hill), 98103, and 98105 (the University District, Laurelhurst). This is a fairly strong geographic split that parallels the split between business, which is backing Harrell, and labor, which is backing González. While it would be foolhardy to suggest that González doesn’t have support from people who live in wealthier, less diverse, and more conservative neighborhoods or that Harrell lacks support in the southeast Seattle district he represented on the Seattle City Council for four years, these are several data points among many that reveal each candidate’s base of support.

Another potentially revealing data point is the size of the contributions candidates receive from donors. Although Seattle campaign finance rules limit contributions in the mayoral race to $550, many people who can’t afford to “max out” give considerably less — particularly, this year, to González, who has raised thousands more sub-$50 contributions than Harrell, who received more than twice as many large contributions (between $250 and $500) as González.

Finally, a quick look at the big picture. While Harrell has raised more money overall than González, González actually has more contributors, because more of her supporters have given small amounts than Harrell’s. Just 77 contributors maxed out to González, giving the maximum allowed donation of $550, while Harrell received 321 maxed-out donations. 

Although candidates who accept democracy vouchers, as both González and Harrell have, are supposed to spend no more than $800,000 between the primary and general elections, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission routinely raises those limits when the total value of a campaign for or against a candidate, including IE, exceeds those limits. In other words: Expect this year’s mayoral election, much like the last one, to be one of the most expensive in Seattle history.

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

📸 Featured Image: Seattle City Hall. (Photo attributed to the Seattle City Council’s Flicker account under a Creative Commons, CC0 1.0 license.)

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