Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Southern Strategy: Or, Better Understanding Your Local Kent County Commission District

I. Introduction

In an earlier post about a month ago I postulated that there were four seats on the Kent County Commission that could be seriously contended by the Kent County Democratic Party. Some readers raised some good questions about my claim that Kent County could become like Oakland County where the Democratic Party is competitive on the local level.

This questions led me to dig a bit deeper on these four districts (District 8, 12, 13, and 19). As one can see from the map below, these districts cover portions of Wyoming, all of Kentwood, and the southeast section of Grand Rapids’ Third Ward. From some of my previous political work and historical research, these areas are predominantly suburbs built between 1945 and 1974. Major post-war commercial districts bisect these neighborhoods, with the manufacturing district along Division, Buchanan, and Jefferson Avenues define the 8th and 12 districts, while 28th and 44th Streets pass through portions of all four districts. This is a part of Kent County that boomed during the post-1945 industrial growth and the rise of the service economy well into the late 1970s. Since the early 1990s many of the commercial corridors have experienced economic decline, loosing customers to new commercial centers (whether Rivertown Crossing in Grandville or the new commercial district located near the Kalamazoo/South Beltline commercial district). While the total population of Wyoming and Kentwood continue to grow, the rate of growth has decline since 1990 (especially in Wyoming), and these suburbs (along with the suburban neighborhoods in District 19) are starting to deal with issues of economic development, aging housing stock, and social pressures once faced in central cities. In short, first-ring suburbs such as Grandville, Kentwood, and Wyoming, are now “landlocked” in by the South Beltline and largely built up (although the Panhandle area of Wyoming is still open for some development).

Map 1: The Four Southern Districts

II. General Analysis

I examined the election returns from the 8th, 12th, 13th, and 19th Kent County Commission Districts from 2002, 2004, and 2006. I broke down the election returns for the Governor’s and Presidential races, the Senate races for 2002 (Levin v. Rocky) and 2006 (Stabenow v. Bouchard), the House races (Ehlers v. three different opponents), and the County Commission races at the precinct level to better track partisan trends over time.

In analyzing the returns from the fifty precincts that make up these four districts, some broader trends emerge over the past six years. The first is that Democrats are competitive in these districts- at least on the state level. Levin and Stabenow carried some of these districts in both 2002 and 2006, as did Granholm in 2006. Secondly, the overall Democratic proportion of the vote has increased since 2002, especially in the 8th and 12th Districts. Finally, the Democratic percentage of the vote for County Commission races are much lower than for state level races, mirroring whatever percentage of the vote Vern Ehlers’ opponent gets.

This situation may be changing somewhat in two districts- the 8th and 12th. As shown from the map below, Democrats have carried the old Division Street core of Wyoming and are gaining strength in many older residential neighborhoods. Maps 2 and 3 show precincts with a Democratic majority in blue, and precincts with a Republican majority in red from the 2006 commission returns.

Map 2: District 8

Map 3: District 12

Maps 4 and 5 show a more important story. Maps 4 and 5shows precincts in both districts that had the Democratic percentage of the vote increase at a higher rate than the district-wide average of 8% between 2002 and 2006.

Map 4: District 8 Gains

Map 5: District 12 Gains

These two maps show that Democrats are doing better at the lowest level over the past decade. While some might dispute my contention that 2008 will be another Democratic year, I am fairly sure that it will be, especially on the state-level. With proven vote getters such as Carl Levin at the top of the ballot, not to mention a contested Presidential election, Democrats will have ample reasons to get to the polls. The Republican brand is at its lowest tide since 1992 (some might say 1974), and a strong concentrated effort on the local level might add some more Democrats to the County Commission.

III. Recommendations

Turning Wyoming and Kentwood blue is not an overnight project. Our county party should see to find candidates who are willing to run two times (in 2008 and 2010) and are willing to pound the pavement hard from Memorial Day to Election Day-as Brandon Dillon did in 2006. Such efforts should be combined with a careful perusal of the Grebner voting lists to help identify independent voters tired of a county commission unwilling to use its powers to create a better Kent County.

Finally, anyone interested in local elections should pick up a copy of Donald Green and Alan Gerber’s Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout. Recently revised, Green and Gerber’s work examine strategies used to increase voter turnout, and conducted a number of studies in a variety of different locations and elections. The authors conclude that door-to-door canvassing is the most effective manner to bring voters to the polls, especially in local races. Furthermore, sustained canvassing efforts (i.e. hitting a neighborhood multiple times before the final weekend before Election Day) is crucial in persuading voters to cast their ballot for a challenger. Using such a strategy may go a long way to bringing electoral success for our party in the southern suburbs.

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