Why Did Nobody Care Enough to Vote for D.C.’s Mayor?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 4 2014 9:09 AM

Why Did Nobody Care Enough to Vote for D.C.’s Mayor?

Should Vincent Gray blame the U.S. Attorney's Office? The Washington Post? Himself?

Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Howard Kurtz, who was the Washington Post's media reporter for a generation, judges its coverage of the D.C. mayoral primary. He finds it wanting. "The Washington Post editorial page has most likely made Muriel Bowser the next mayor of the District of Columbia," he writes, referring to the daily's endorsement of the councilwoman-turned-nominee. "Unfortunately, the Washington Post news pages failed to tell us very much about her ... in the final two weeks, the paper never ran a full-scale examination of her record."

This might be a little unfair to the Post. Bowser had gotten plenty of coverage in the paper. Mike DeBonis, the paper's fantastic local politics beat reporter, profiled her a month before the polls closed and a week before Mayor Vincent Gray was hit by the scandal that smothered any chance of momentum. Weeks earlier Melinda Henneberger, one of the Post's many roving political writers, walked the campaign trail with Bowser. If you expand the voters' options, and consider what else he/she might have read before voting the City Paper put Bowser on the cover ("Muriel's Vetting") a full year before the primary.

But back to the Post. Yes, the paper endorsed Bowser a full six weeks before the primary, before the aforementioned DeBonis piece (not to mention some profiles of the surging candidate) ran. Anyone who read past the headline saw an endorsement that struggled to fill a paragraph with Bowser's accomplishments ("she has been a thoughtful and pragmatic lawmaker who tries to identify problems before formulating solutions") and suggested that Gray would have deserved another term "if this were an ordinary election year." The Post had twice endorsed Bowser's mentor, Adrian Fenty; it had broken story after story about the ethics fallout from Gray's 2010 campaign.


So there are sore feelings about Gray's loss, which has been blamed alternately on the U.S. attorney's case and the Post's reporting. DeBonis has even followed up with a post about how Gray was in trouble before the mid-March hit from the U.S. attorney. In other cities—Philadelphia's 2003 mayoral race comes to mind—voters who were angry about the way a mayor was being treated by the press and the feds rose up to re-elect him. In D.C., Gray's vote simply failed to show up.

The pathetic turnout numbers tell that story. Only 22.5 percent of D.C.'s registered voters turned out for the election, down from 37.1 percent in 2010. Only 35,899 Democrats voted for Muriel Bowser—that's far fewer than the 59,524 who voted for Fenty in 2010, when he lost. There was a path to victory for Gray, but in his strongest wards, turnout collapsed. In 2010 Gray racked up 14,518 votes in Ward 7 and 10,502 votes in Ward 8, represented by council members Yvette Alexander and Marion Barry, both of whom endorsed him. In 2014 Gray won 4,831 votes in Ward 7 and 3,058 votes in Ward 8. Across those wards, Bowser actually won fewer votes than Fenty had. But in 2010 turnout was 36.8 percent in Ward 7. This year it was 16.5 percent. In Ward 8 turnout tumbled from 31.4 percent to 11.5 percent. 

Gray could have won. Nothing was stopping voters from learning more about Bowser or showing up to cast a backlash vote against Gray's inquisitors. D.C. Democrats chose to fall asleep, delivering the worst turnout in the 40-year history of mayoral primaries. 

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?