Eight years ago, voters in Seattle decided to amend the city’s plan of government to provide for a mostly-district based City Council instead of one with nine at-large seats. Since 2015, the Council has consisted of seven district-based seats and two at-large seats, with one of the two seats being held by M. Lorena González.
González opted to run for mayor this year instead of seeking another term on the Council, so, for the first time since the Council shifted to a hybrid architecture, voters will be choosing a new councilmember to serve in Position #9.
The finalists voters selected for the job in the summer are Sara Nelson, a small business owner who co-owns Fremont Brewing, and Nikkita Oliver, a lawyer, author, and activist who has significant experience building nonprofits.
Both Nelson and Oliver have previously run for office in Seattle before, and both have come up short: Nelson for Council and Oliver for Mayor.
This year, though, one of them is going to be headed to Seattle City Hall as one of the Emerald City’s newest elected officials. But we likely won’t know which one until several days after Election Day. That’s because the contest between Nelson and Oliver is the closest of Seattle’s four citywide races this year.
Just four percentage points currently separate Nelson and Oliver from each other in our October 2021 general election survey of Emerald City voters — a difference that is almost equal to the poll’s 4.1% modeled margin of error.
41% of 617 likely 2021 voters in Seattle said last week that they were voting for Nelson for Council Position #9, while 37% said they were voting for Oliver. 21% said they were not sure and 2% said they would not cast a vote.
The tenuous Nelson lead mirrors the dynamic we saw on Election Night back in August, when Nelson was in first place. However, Nelson subsequently gave up that lead and Oliver climbed into first place thanks to a surge of support in the late ballots, a position they held onto through certification. Nelson ended up with 39.47% of the vote in August, while Oliver finished with 40.18%.
Our general election poll, which was conducted for the Northwest Progressive Institute by Change Research, has a modeled margin of error of 4.1% at the 95% confidence interval. All 617 respondents participated online. The poll was in the field from Tuesday, October 12th, 2021 through Friday, October 15th, 2021.
Here are the exact questions that we asked, and the responses that we received:
QUESTION: The candidates for City Council Position #9 this year are listed below in the order that they will appear on the November general election ballot. Who are you voting for?
- Sara Nelson: 39%
- Nikkita Oliver: 35%
- Not sure: 26%
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION ASKED OF UNDECIDED VOTERS ONLY: If you had to choose, who would you vote for?
ANSWERS FROM UNDECIDED VOTERS:
- [Still] Not sure: 82%
- Nikkita Oliver: 7%
- Sara Nelson: 3%
- Would not vote: 2%
COMBINED ANSWERS, BOTH QUESTIONS:
- Sara Nelson: 41%
- Nikkita Oliver: 37%
- Not sure: 21%
- Would not vote: 2%
In our July 2021 survey of the Seattle electorate, Oliver was the best performing candidate, a testament to their organizing prowess and early community outreach, with 26% support. Nelson received less than half that in the poll (11%), but promptly experienced a surge in support as voting got underway.
On Election Night, thanks to robust backing from early voters, Nelson jumped out to a first place lead. But it didn’t last. As mentioned, Oliver overtook Nelson in the late ballots, ending up in first place just as our research had indicated they might.
Could that same scenario play out again next month?
Our team thinks it very well might. Unlike in the mayoral or city attorney races, where the leading candidates have double digit leads, Nelson’s lead is pretty small. That’s the kind of lead that can be overcome in late ballots.
Crucially, Oliver has support that neither Lorena González nor Nicole Thomas-Kennedy have in those other races. Oliver leads Nelson (41% to 34%) among voters of color, unlike Gonzalez or Thomas-Kennedy, and also has an advantage with voters who identify as female (40% to Nelson’s 35%).
Oliver is also ahead with two age brackets instead of just one.
They have the support of a slight plurality of voters ages thirty-five to fifty (40% to Nelson’s 37%) in addition to a huge lead among young voters between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four (55% to Nelson’s 25%).
That base of support will be vital in the home stretch, keeping Oliver competitive.
Nelson’s strongest support comes from older voters and voters who identify as male. 50% of voters ages sixty-five and up are backing her, while 25% support Oliver. Voters between the ages of fifty and sixty-four also prefer Nelson: 46% of them say they’re voting for her versus 32% for Oliver.
If Nelson can expand her lead between now and November 2nd, she might be able to hold off Oliver instead of falling to second place in the late ballots.
According to our geographic crosstabs, there are significant numbers of undecided voters in two council districts: District #1 (which encompasses West Seattle) and District #7 (which includes the financial district, Queen Anne, Magnolia, and nearby neighborhoods). 34% of voters in each “likely” council district are not sure who they are voting for, figures that were twice as high as in any other district.
Whichever candidate can most effectively appeal to the voters in West Seattle, downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia in these last two weeks may wind up with the edge when all of the ballots have been counted.
Oliver’s strongest district is #2 (which encompasses the Rainier Valley and adjacent neighborhoods, like Beacon Hill), while Nelson’s strongest district is #5 (the northernmost district, which includes neighborhoods adjoining Shoreline.)
Oliver has 65% support in “likely” council district #2 and Nelson has 49% support in “likely” council district #5. (Note that our geographic segmentation is based on zip code, not respondents’ specific addresses, which is why these crosstabs are characterized as “likely” council districts.)
Both Nelson and Oliver have proven that they can connect with voters. We’ll be fascinated to see who voters pick to represent them on the Council next month. The race may or may not end up in recount territory, but regardless of whether it does or not, it looks like it will be the closest of the four citywide races.
NPI is not aligned with either Nelson or Oliver and does not have an endorsement for Seattle City Council Position #9, or any involvement in an independent expenditure supporting or opposing either candidate.
Voting in the November 2021 general will end on November 2nd. Ballots must carry a 11/02/2021 postmark or be in a dropbox by 8 PM to count.