Supervisor Jane Kim won a stunning upset when she squeaked passed other Supervisor Scott Wiener in the June 2016 primary election for San Francisco’s (and part of San Mateo) State Senator. Unfortunately for Kim (a phrase I’ll be writing a lot in this article), the primary didn’t count for much. It was essentially a dry run for the main event in November. The top two finishers in the primary face off in the general election, which means “Kim/Wiener: the remix” came just a few months later.
Unfortunately for Kim, she wasn’t able to replicate her June success again in November. Instead, it was Scott Wiener that managed to squeak out the win. “How the heck did this happen?” is what I imagined Kim asked herself the morning after the election, and the question we’re going to ask today.
The answer to that question lies in the behavior of about 174,000 San Franciscans, which is how many more people voted in the general election than in the primary. Of that 174K, 72K voted for Kim and 82K voted for Weiner (41K left it blank), which is how he went from losing by 1.5K to winning by 8.
But San Franciscans are an idiosyncratic bunch. Kim didn’t lose every part of the city equally. In fact, she even improved on her Primary performance in a few parts of the city. Her greatest improvement came in District 11 (Excelsior, Crocker-Amazon, Outer Mission). Her other improvement, though not enough to win, was in District 7 (West of Twin Peaks, Parkside).
Kim did slightly worse in most other parts of the city, except in two places where she did a lot worse; District 6 (SOMA, the Tenderloin, Mission Bay) where she underperformed her primary performance by 6 percent and District 3 (Chinatown, Russian Hill, North Beach) where she underperformed by almost 4 percent. Her poor performance iin these two districts is surprising because she represents District 6 on the Board of Supervisors, and District 3 is represented by her legislative butt-buddy Aaron Peskin. Kim won both districts, but anemically. Strong performances in Districts 6 and 3 along with progressive strongholds, District 5 (Haight, Cole Valley, Western Addition, Hayes Valley) and District 9 (Mission, Bernal Heights, and Portola) are what powered her victory in the primary.
Of the 11 districts in the city, these were the only two where it looks like voters who voted in the general but not the primary broke against the candidate who won the district, which was extremely costly for Kim. Had Kim performed as well in Districts 3 and 6 as she did in primary, she would have cut her total margin of loss in half.
In District 6, Kim won, but with diminished support in precincts in Western SOMA and parts of the Tenderloin along Taylor Street. Kim lost several precincts that she previously won in Southern SOMA/Mission Bay and in precincts along Van Ness Ave. Unfortunately for Kim, these precincts also had the largest increases in voter turnout. As a result, Kim’s margin of victory in the district during the general election was about half of what it was in the primary. She previously won District 6 by about 2200 votes and only won it by about 1,100 votes in the general election.
In District 3, Weiner flipped several Russian Hill and North Beach precincts into his column that previously voted for Kim. Like District 6, these precincts accounted for the majority of the increased turnout. Kim also performed poorly in several Chinatown precincts, where her lead over Weiner shrank by about 8 percent (though she won them). She previously received very high levels of support from Chinatown voters. Kim was able to compensate with very strong performances in the Tenderloin, Mid-Market, and Financial District, such that she carried the district, but only by about 330 votes; whereas she carried it by almost 1300 votes in the primary.
Why is this important?
Any city supervisor trying to make the leap to higher office needs strong support from his or her core areas. District 6 and District 3 (especially Chinatown) should have been that for Kim. Wiener won District 8 (the Castro, Noe Valley, Glen Park), the district he represented, by almost 6,000 votes. Unfortunately for Kim, she wasn’t able to replicate her primary winning margins in the general election.
Kim ran as a progressive who could appeal to more moderate voters. She demonstrated this broad appeal by sponsoring and closely associating herself with politically popular ballot initiatives. During the primary, she ran with Prop C, which increased affordable housing requirements. She tried that approach again in the general election by sponsoring an initiative to make City College free through a new parcel tax, but this time it failed to resonate with voters. Even as they voted for Prop B, they voted against Kim. Kim didn’t get much positive press until a few months after the election, when the Board of Supervisors officially made City College free. Had the timing been different, it could have swayed some marginal voters.
Many local politicians use ballot initiatives to elevate their status, but Kim’s loss may indicate that they should chose their issue wisely or find that their time was better spent elsewhere.
Why did this happen?
Honestly, your guess is as good as mine, but here are a few thoughts:
Turnout was much higher in the general election than in the primary. The largest increases in turnout were in Districts 8, 7, and 2 (Marina, Pacific Heights, Nob Hill, Seacliff), which the most pro-Weiner areas in the primary.
However, turnout alone doesn’t explain Kim’s loss. Had she maintained the level of support she received in the primary, she would have won. The general election voters shifted away from Kim. Perhaps the voters who sat out the primary but voted in the general were more moderate voters.
Kim had an extremely minor scandal, if you can even call it that, where it was revealed that she was dating the not-yet-divorced Goodwin Liu, who sits on the California Supreme Court. Though how that’s any more scandalous than Wiener attending a fetish festival in a state of semi-undress seems like selective moralizing to me.
Kim ally and Chinatown “powerbroker” Rose Pak passed away in September. At the time, many speculated what the political fallout would be. It’s possible Kim’s diminished support among Chinatown voters’ is the result of not having Pak there to rally them on her behalf.
Though I don’t find any of these reasons especially compelling, Wiener’s margin of victory was very slim, so any combination of these factors could have helped push him over the finish line.
Andy Mullan is SF By The Numbers, the Bay City Beacon's own numbers guy and data columnist. You can follow his adventures in new adulthood at his blog: Lord of the Fails.