Primary Predictions

Sorry but I’m not going to make any order-of-finish predictions for the city council primary. The headline was just a cheap trick to get you to read this post. I do have some thoughts on the fact that there will be a primary, assuming a few of the 21 individuals who qualified for a position on the ballot don’t withdraw by the ballot-printing deadline.

It’s been so long since there was a city primary that I’m having a hard time determining when one was last held. My own records on this site (be sure to check our our permanent ELECTIONS page for that stuff) aren’t very clear. I’ll do more research and write a future post on the topic. Something tells me that there was a primary in 1999, but the last one that had a citywide impact was in 1995 when a loose slate of challengers who strongly opposed city participation in the construction of an arena and a ballpark, finished in the top nine in the primary. Unfortunately for them, their good performance served as a wake-up call to the poor-performing incumbents and to the very much pro-arena newspaper of the time (which was then under different management, obviously). In the final election, the finish was reversed, the incumbents were re-elected and the ballpark, the arena and other public projects were completed (much to the city’s benefit in my opinion, but that’s another story).

The prevailing wisdom is that a primary favors the incumbents since it gives them a yardstick of how the voters perceive their performance. A weak finish in the primary gives a shaky incumbent time to ratchet up campaign activity and strengthen that candidate’s general election position. But the same can be said for challengers. In my dad’s first campaign back in 1965, he finished in 11th place in the primary which motivated him to work all the harder and he finished 5th in the general election (and was then re-elected 19 consecutive times).

That’s it for now. In the coming days a plan to do a candidate-by-candidate assessment, so watch for that. In the meantime, lets not have any “why spend $40,000 to eliminate x number of candidates in a primary” talk. We’ve been down that road too many times before, and no one has done anything to change the system. Unless you have made a serious effort to make such a change, you’re in no position to grumble now.

Regardless of being a challenger or an incumbent, having the primary will hurt those candidates who have been slow to start their campaigns. If you spent 4th of July mapping out your campaign strategy, you probably blew right past September 24 without giving it much notice. But if you were drafting your strategic plan around St. Patrick’s Day, you’re probably well into your door-to-door canvassing, had a fund raiser or two, lawn signs printed, and are in a position to use the primary for your strategic benefit. If you’re just cranking up your campaign, that September 24 date looms not too far in the future. Sure, if you’re a credible candidate you’ll make the top 18 and continue on, but you may have missed the chance to have an unexpectedly strong finish in the primary catapult you into the top ranks of perceived victors in the general election. That doesn’t guarantee anything; but sometimes perception can become reality.

4 Responses to Primary Predictions

  1. Joe S. says:

    I won’t quibble about your use of the term “primary”, but will take issue with your conclusion that such an election favors the incumbents. I think the lack of a preliminary election favors the incumbents. My reasoning is based on the premise that there is a certain amount of anti-incumbency in every election, and without a preliminary election to winnow the field, those anti-incumbency votes are distributed over a larger number of “challengers”. With so many final elections coming down to small margins in the 9th to 12th spots, this slight watering-down of a challenger’s vote could make the difference in winning a seat on the council. As far as working harder as a result of knowledge gained from a preliminary election, that should apply to anyone who is a serious contender.

  2. Brian Leahey says:

    My notes indicated the following:

    1. The last preliminary election was 1999. [You did not misremember.] There were nineteen candidates.
    2. In 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2011, no preliminary was required.
    3. Waivers were sought and granted in 2007 and 2009.
    As to whether the prelim helps or hurts incumbents or challengers, I don’t think we can read much into the pros and cons of who benefits from a prelim or lack thereof given the dramatic increase in votes between the two. The last 5 preliminary elections saw the following increase in voter turnout come the November general elections – 1999 – 86%; 1997 – 81%; 1995 – 46%; 1993 – 34%; and 1989 – 61%. While the data is 14-24 years old and reflects a time when more citizens voted; I think the difference between the 2 elections would still be significant but probably closer to the 34-46% than 81-86% barring an October surprise.

    BTW, I was surprised by the caption. It seemed so uncharacteristic for you. I thought what’s next – referring to your Civil War historical projects as the War Between the States or better yet, the War of Northern Aggression.

  3. DickH says:

    I learned something new today: the distinction between a preliminary and a primary election. It’s just that for the past 48 years I’ve called it a “primary” and treated “preliminary” as a synonym. If I make the mistake again, it’s force of habit and not an intentional misuse.

    Rather than writing “the [preliminary] helps the incumbents more” it would have been more accurate to say something like “the way the preliminary helps the incumbents is . . .” because, as Joe points out, the challengers, or at least the top-finishing ones, probably benefit from a preliminary election as well.

  4. John McDonough says:

    Preliminary/Primary are a waste of time and government money, I do enjoy the parties however the food is scarce at some! This can be a good campaign issue, why didn’t the council seek to change our ceiling to 25? PLUS there is no Preliminary/Primary for the school committees making this a waste of time for much of the Citizenry