The headlines coming out of last Tuesday’s Boston City Council elections focused on change. Second-time challenger Annissa Essaibi George overcame longtime Councilor Stephen Murphy for the fourth of four at-large seats. And in District 4, newcomer Andrea Campbell bested dean-of-the-council Charles Yancey by a wide margin.
But a review of unofficial results posted online by the city's Election Department shows there was a lot of continuity. As they did in 2013, Councilors Ayanna Pressley, Michelle Wu and Michael Flaherty finished first, second and third in the at-large balloting. With a measly 14 percent turnout there wasn’t much daylight between the top four; only 8,300 votes separated first-place Pressley from fourth-place Essaibi George.
Hat Trick for Pressley
This year was the third straight election in which Pressley was the top at-large vote-getter. Overall, 63 percent of voters who took a ballot in the at-large election voted for Pressley; in 73 of 255 precincts, 75 percent or more of voters marked her name, according to the voting data.
Pressley’s dominance is evident from the map of precinct winners. She won 99 out of 255 precincts, cutting a wide swath through the middle of the city. She dominated in Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester, but she also won most of Jamaica Plain, the Fenway and Mission Hill, expanded deep into Dorchester, and won parts of Allston, Hyde Park and even South Boston.
Looking at the map echoes another recent election. While the 2013 mayoral race bifurcated the city more neatly, Pressley’s area of strength is the same as where Marty Walsh ran up unexpectedly large margins — and the votes he needed to win. While Pressley has given no signal of interest in running for mayor, the overlaps between her and Walsh's power centers would make for a fascinating race.
Liberals Did Not Punish Michelle Wu
Wu was a favorite candidate of progressives in 2013, when the first-timer surprised many by coming in second behind Pressley. But her reputation was tarnished right off the bat in the eyes of many liberals, when she announced she would support District 2 Councilor Bill Linehan’s bid for council president. Even though Wu’s vote was not decisive in Linehan’s victory, some observers wondered whether her vote would cost at the polls.
Not much, it would seem. Wu came in second again on Tuesday behind Pressley; a majority of 57 percent marked her name on their ballots Tuesday. Wu won outright near her home in Roslindale and split West Roxbury with Michael Flaherty. She also won in Allston-Brighton, the Back Bay, South End and downtown Boston.
Wu’s areas of strength line up with the precincts won by former City Councilor John Connolly in the 2013 mayoral race. Comparing her vote percentage with that of Walsh from that election reveals a negative relationship; in other words, Wu did better in places where Walsh did relatively worse in 2013.
One potential sign of political damage was that Wu ran second, at times closely, to Pressley in Jamaica Plain. Wu edged Pressley there in 2013, but a progressive neighborhood group declined to endorse her this year over the Linehan vote.
But overall, it’s hard to argue with trailing Pressley by just 2 percentage points and fewer than 3,000 votes. Boston voters, especially the diehards voting in such a low turnout race, have long memories, but they seem to have spared Wu on Tuesday.
Essaibi George Drew Votes Farther From Home Than Murphy
As we tracked turnout on election day, we noted what looked like a red flag for challenger Essaibi George. Her home district in Dorchester was under-performing, in terms of raw votes and voter turnout, when compared to the home bases of Councilors Flaherty and Murphy:
Possible red flag for Essaibi George: turnout in home district lags those of rivals https://t.co/I0wfOq9cMl #bospoli pic.twitter.com/3rRLRkEfQ9
— Rich Parr (@richparr79) November 3, 2015
Essaibi George needed to come in ahead of either Flaherty or Murphy to make it onto the council. Was this a sign that she would be shut out of the top four for a second election in a row?
It turns out not. Murphy did manage to win precincts around his home in Hyde Park with good turnout, helped no doubt by a somewhat competitive race in District 5. But he didn’t win many other places. Instead, it was Essaibi George who showed strength beyond her home turf, winning or tying for first in 16 precincts.
Head to head, Essaibi George ran up her biggest margins over Murphy in Jamaica Plain; 30 percent of her winning margin came from Ward 19, which comprises most of JP.
No. 1 With A Bullet
Essaibi George also benefited from the fact that voters for at-large city councilor can choose up to four candidates; citywide, the average was 2.6 votes per ballot. Essaibi George did better in precincts where voters voted for more candidates on their ballots, as did Wu. Murphy, along with Pressley and third-place finisher Flaherty, won more of the vote in precincts where voters voted for fewer candidates per ballot.
Some of that may have more to do with geography than anything about the candidates. Both Essaibi George and Wu did well in Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and uptown. These areas had some of the highest vote-to-ballot ratios in the city, meaning voters there were more likely to vote for multiple candidates.
Murphy, Pressley and Flaherty ran strongest in Hyde Park, Roxbury and Mattapan, and South Boston, respectively — all areas with where voters marked fewer candidates on their ballots. There was likely more "bullet voting" in these areas, where voters only choose their top candidate and leave the other three slots blank.
There’s also a relationship between race and voting patterns: The higher the percentage of white residents in a precinct, the more likely its voters were to vote for multiple candidates. This effect tends to amplify the differences in turnout between white and majority-minority sections of the city, as well. Not only do white precincts tend to turn out voters at higher rates, but those voters tend to cast more votes in the at-large election than voters in majority-minority precincts.
There was actually less of a difference in turnout between white and non-white precincts in this election. This may be because of competitive races in Districts 4, 5 and 7, which cover much of the majority-minority center of the city. But with turnout overall near a record low, the council election left precious few tea leaves to read: Pressley is still on top; and Wu emerged from an early gaffe largely unscathed; and newcomer Essaibi George overcame relative weakness near home by appealing to voters elsewhere.
Rich Parr is the research director of The MassINC Polling Group.