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Mapping turnout and power in Madison’s big State Senate primary

What the results in the 26th District reveal about Madison’s political geography and the chances for upstart candidates.

The votes from the August 11 primary are in and Madison will have a new State Senator in the 26th District: Kelda Roys. The competitive seven-way Democratic primary was basically unheard of in Madison politics, and had candidates genuinely representing different interests in the city.

On the one side you had candidates representing segments of the Democratic establishment, with its interest in modest socially liberal policies and capital-friendly economics: Kelda Roys, John Imes, and Amani Latimer Burris. On the other, you had grassroots “progressive” Madison, represented by Nada Elmikashfi, Brian Benford, and Aisha Moe. Then there was William Henry Davis III, an underdog even among underdogs. 

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For the two “sides” in the election, each candidate represented a subset of their base: Roys, for example, was able to win the real estate and technology interests of the Democratic Party, while Benford could tap into the progressivism of the 1990s that’s been pushed aside as Madison has tried to lock down a neoliberal development model for the city, and Elmikashfi appealed more to the younger crowd of millennials and zoomers, as well as an impressive coalition of local community groups, nonprofits, unions, and environmentalists. (I am a member of Madison’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter, which endorsed Elmikashfi.)

With so much going on in the race, the voting data can tell us a great deal about the ongoing showdown between establishment Democrats and leftist upstarts. Despite COVID-19, it was the highest turnout for the 26th District in at least 20 years. Just shy of 50,000 voters participated—more than double the number of ballots cast in 2016, when long-serving State Senator Fred Risser ran unopposed. This year, Roys took the lead with 19,789 votes (40.2%), followed by Elmikashfi (26.8%), then Benford (9.5%), Latimer Burris (8.9%), Moe (7.4%), Imes (6.2%), and lastly Davis (0.8%).

Roys took a plurality, but not a majority—60 percent of the votes cast in the race were for someone other than the winner.

The race came down to Roys and Elmikashfi, who pulled ahead of the rest of the pack as the only candidates with double-digit support. Roys and Elmikashfi were the only two candidates to win wards in the district: Roys 55 to Elmikashfi’s 24.

Is this a vindication of establishment liberalism in Madison? If we pick apart the numbers beyond the overall percentages, it reveals a much more nuanced picture of Madison’s political geography.

The above ward map shows the level of support for either Roys or Elmikashfi (dark blue is strong Roys, dark orange is strong Elmikashfi). The first thing you’d see is a typical east-west divide, but east-west doesn’t tell us anything about the people who voted other than where they live.

Pair that instead with a map of income in the district, and you see something much more interesting: the lower income wards tended to go to Elmikashfi, and the higher income ones went for Roys. But there are more poor people than wealthy people, so shouldn’t that have carried Elmikashfi? Sure, if everyone voted, but they don’t: the less money you make, the less likely you are to vote.

If we look at how many ballots were cast by ward, we’ll see something else interesting: The poorest wards and the wards with the most Black and brown residents had the lowest turnout in the city. What’s more, the wards covering and adjacent to the UW-Madison campus had absolutely miserable turnout: some as low as 48 votes total cast. Whether that’s from COVID-19 keeping students from sticking around or the fact that the primary happened right before move-in week, it had the effect of suppressing the student vote. The highest turnout was along the Isthmus (downtown and the near-east side) and the west side closer to Middleton.

That should give us pause when thinking about the results. Even with double the turnout, who turned out played out according to your class and race. This isn’t to say only rich people voted, but the turnout doesn’t reflect the city—it over-represents white people and people with more money. Madison’s no different than the rest of the country in this respect.

For those who voted, why did they pick one candidate over another? We don’t have any polling information to draw from. We could speculate about how the Black Lives Matter movement, the Presidential election, or attitudes to the candidates’ policies influenced the outcome, but actually the strongest determinant of the outcomes was how much money each candidate raised.

There’s a 94% correlation between the money a candidate raised (as a percent of total funds raised) to the percent of votes won. Basically, the more money you raised, the more votes you got.

If we sort the candidates by the two sides (establishment/centrist vs. grassroots/progressive), you notice something else. Grassroots candidates outperformed compared to the establishment candidates: they won a share of votes above their portion of the funds raised. The establishment candidates (Roys, Latimer Burris, Imes) all got a lower return for their money. So grassroots campaigns are more effective, dollar for dollar, but that doesn’t matter if you’re running against someone with a shitload of money to burn. Roys actually had among the worst ratios of money raised-to-votes won, but she had so much money that she still won out over the other candidates.

Why should this matter? We like to think that money isn’t everything, and it is not the only thing; Brian Benford performed exceptionally well considering his shoe-string budget. But in modern US politics without publicly funded elections, you gotta pay to play. Money buys exposure and the appearance of a professionalism that many voters look for to signal who is a legitimate candidate and who isn’t. 

Given the spread, one might ask if the election was “spoiled” by having too many candidates. Would Elmikashfi have won if this race was just her and Roys? Sadly, no. Assuming the two-sides dynamic holds up, it would have been 56-44 for Roys—a much better spread for Elmikashfi, but there’s no silver medal for second place. This is comparable to the April Presidential Primary in Dane County, where Bernie Sanders took 40% to Joe Biden’s 55%. Both Sanders and local grassroots candidates have the same problem: even if your perspectives are widely popular, it’s extremely difficult to activate the new voters you’d need to win. Still, this is a testament to grassroots organizing that they could provide a real alternative to business-as-usual politics.

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