Categories: Elections

A close race for Seattle City Council #9: Sara Nelson leads Nikkita Oliver by just four points

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%.

A visu­al of NPI’s gen­er­al elec­tion poll find­ing for Seat­tle City Coun­cil Posi­tion #9, 2021

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.

Fol­low this link if you’re inter­est­ed in a detailed primer on the sur­vey’s method­ol­o­gy along with infor­ma­tion about who took the poll. 

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?

[See list as it was shown to respon­dents]


  • 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?


  • [Still] Not sure: 82%
  • Nikki­ta Oliv­er: 7%
  • Sara Nel­son: 3%
  • Would not vote: 2%


  • 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.

Andrew Villeneuve

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