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A Preliminary Geographical Breakdown of Buffalo’s 2021 Democratic Mayoral Primary Election

Author: Russell Weaver (@RustBeltGeo)


As cliched as it sounds, Buffalo’s historic June 2021 Democratic Mayoral Primary, in which political newcomer and Democratic Socialist India Walton won a major upset over four-term incumbent Byron Brown – putting Ms. Walton on the path to become the City’s first-ever female Mayor – is something of a tale of two cities. And it’s the same tale that Buffalonians have known and heard about for generations: the “East-West Divide” carved by Main Street through the heart of the City.

According to Anthony Armstrong, founder of Make Communities and coauthor of the Racial Equity Dividend report for Buffalo-Niagara, the “`Main Street divide’ is real, and it is stark.” The predominantly African American East Side of Main Street is the product of decades of redlining, disinvestment, and public policies that have targeted symptoms rather than root causes. West of Main Street, by contrast, is made up of many of the City’s most walkable, amenity-rich (and hence affluent and disproportionately white) neighborhoods like Elmwood and Hertel, as well historically resilient neighborhoods like Black Rock/Riverside, and the City’s most racially and culturally diverse neighborhoods on the West Side (which are under constant pressure from gentrifying forces).

At first glance, the Primary Election appears to have broken mostly along these lines. The map below depicts Buffalo’s election districts according to which candidate won a plurality or better of votes cast. Data were obtained from the Erie County Board of Elections’ (BOE’s) results portal on 30 June 2021 and joined to Erie County’s election district spatial data layer in a Geographic Information System (GIS). Seemingly for economy, the BOE occasionally combines data from nearby election districts when reporting results. (To see what I mean, go to the BOE election results portal and click on a random district on the map. Check to see if the resulting pop-up box says that the district “Includes” other districts, or if it has been “Combined into” another district’s report.) The following map accounts for all such combinations.

The highlighted line that runs from the Allentown and Fruit Belt neighborhoods to the northeastern boundary of the City is Main Street. With a handful of exceptions, Democratic voters located West of Main Street who turned out in the Primary went, on balance, for Ms. Walton; those who turned out East of Main Street went, on balance, for Mr. Brown. One notable exception to this pattern occurs in the Fruit Belt, where Ms. Walton co-founded and directed the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust (FBCLT) and predictably performed well with voters. Other exceptions include, for Ms. Walton (from north to south): University Heights; Schiller Park; most of Genesee-Moselle; the northern half of Lovejoy; parts of Broadway-Fillmore; parts of Seneca-Babcock and the First Ward; and most of Seneca-Cazenovia. For Mr. Brown, exceptions west of Main Street include Black Rock, Riverside, and West Hertel in the north, and the Waterfront Village area west of the Lower West Side.

Now, it’s too early for most data analysts to access the voter file that we could use to map individual voters and explore the distribution of exactly who turned out and where they live (author’s note: I requested the file from the state BOE and am awaiting a reply). Nor do we have reliable exit polling data to describe the characteristics of voters who turned out for each candidate. But, if we can’t statistically profile each candidate’s voters, we can at least describe characteristics of the geographic areas that each candidate won to get a sense for who might be supporting whom. The remainder of this post does some relatively basic profiling using census block-group level data for 2019. The objective is to paint an initial picture of how the “tale of two cities” narrative is (re)shaping Buffalo’s political landscape, and what it might mean for November and beyond.

The View from 30,000 Feet

Taken together, the areas won by Ms. Walton contain roughly 49.5% of Buffalo’s total population. By that measure, we might make the naïve statement that Ms. Walton and Mr. Brown each won about half the City. Of course, not all Buffalo residents can participate in a Democratic Primary. Looking to the most recent (February 2021) voter registration data from the New York State BOE, areas won by Mr. Brown enjoy a fairly sizeable enrollment advantage among registered Democrats. Active Democratic voters in Brown-won territory outnumber their counterparts in Walton-won territory by nearly 23,000 (161,756 to 138,915).

One way that Ms. Walton overcame this enrollment disadvantage was with an aggressive ground game, bolstered by her “strong community presence, bold ideas, and the backing of electoral experts,” especially from within the Working Families Party political apparatus. Combining those ingredients into a tight and well-organized campaign got voters to the polls, plain and simple. Turnout in Walton-won districts was three percentage points higher (21.5%) than the lackluster participation in Brown-won territory (18.5%). In a recent interview with Geoff Kellyfor the Investigative Post, University at Buffalo Professor and renowned Buffalo scholar Dr. Henry Louis Taylor Jr. suggested that low turnout in former Brown strongholds amounted to a protest. To Dr. Taylor, “there were people in the Black community who couldn’t stomach Brown but didn’t believe India could win…so they just stayed home.”

Now that Ms. Walton has demonstrated she can win, and Mr. Brown has committed to staying in the race as a write-in candidate through November, reaching those disaffected/“protest” (non-)voters could be one of the keys to winning the General Election. At the same time, retaining and building on the momentum generated in areas with higher turnout will be necessary for Ms. Walton to withstand the pressure of a well-funded, newly motivated candidate with universal name recognition. Toward those ends, it might be useful for observers watching the race to know a little more about who lives in each of these “two cities” that are about to choose the next Mayor of Buffalo, and potentially reshape the Western New York political landscape for years to come.

The City That Ms. Walton Won

Echoing a statement made earlier, the following profiles are no more than surface-scratching. Until my voter file request to the state BOE comes through, I’m admittedly choosing to be a little lazy. Even so, scratching a surface with a lazy analysis is often the first step in identifying more interesting questions to investigate with greater force, depth, and clarity once they reveal themselves.

With that caveat in mind, the path taken below is to look at how Buffalonians are split between Walton-won and Brown-won territories. I examine these splits for just a handful of demographic and socioeconomic variables, before synthesizing the results and speculating on their implications for Buffalo’s future.

To begin, consider housing tenure. Housing has been one of Ms. Walton’s signature issues since launching her campaign. Among her “first 100 days” campaign promises are to “sign a tenant’s bill of rights that would install a tenant advocate and institute rent control.” It’s a message that ought to resonate with renters, especially in Buffalo, where housing cost-burden is perpetually high and convincing evidence exists that tenants are being exploited. The graph shows how the City of Buffalo’s households are divided into Brown- (left) and Walton-won (right) territory, by housing tenure. Somewhat expectedly, the majority of Buffalo’s renter households (53.4%) are situated in spaces where Ms. Walton won. That’s not to say that Ms. Walton won the majority of renters who turned out to vote (though there’s no reason to doubt that’s the case); instead, it’s saying she won in places where the majority of the City’s renters live.

(Note to the reader: all of the following graphs show how certain population or household subgroups within the City are divided between Brown- and Walton-won areas. The graphs can be easily understood by summing bars of the same color. In the tenure example, when the 53.42% value for renter-occupied units in Walton-won territory is added to the 46.58% value for renter households in Brown-won territory, we account for 100% of renter households. That’s how it’s possible to say, for example, that most of Buffalo’s renters live in spaces won by Ms. Walton.)

The next graph performs the same type of analysis for race-ethnicity based on the race and ethnicity categories used by the U.S. Census Bureau. The eight main population subgroups tracked by the Census and included in the figure are: (1) White, (2) Black or African American, (3) Hispanic or Latinx, (4) Asian, (5) Indigenous (“American Indian or Alaska Native” in Census records), (6) Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, (7) “Other”, or identity with one race not represented in the Census’s available categories, and (8) Multiple racial identities (“Two or more races” in Census records). Except for subgroup (3), all persons represented in the chart identify as “Not Hispanic or Latinx” when asked about their ethnicity by the Census Bureau. Members of group (3) – Hispanic or Latinx persons – also identify with one or more racial groups when responding to the Census; however, they are included only in category (3) here to avoid double-counting.

Whereas only 35% of Buffalo’s [non-Hispanic] Black or African American population lives in areas won by Ms. Walton, Walton-won territories contain the majority of residents from all other racial and ethnic groups. At face value, the graph therefore suggests that Ms. Walton lost in many segregated, relatively homogenous African American neighborhoods, but won in more diverse and multiracial communities. One way to test the validity of that claim is to measure the degree of racial-ethnic diversity in Walton-won versus Brown-won territories.

There are numerous ways to accomplish this goal. In keeping with my promise to be lazy, I’ll focus on just one popular diversity index that measures the probability that two persons selected at random in the same area belong to different racial-ethnic groups. The index ranges from 0 – when a neighborhood is completely homogenous – to 100, when every person in a neighborhood identifies with a different racial-ethnic group. I collected values of this index for all census block groups in Buffalo and assigned each block group to Walton-won or Brown-won territory based on the block group’s geographic center point. The graph below shows the resulting median block group diversity index values based on winning candidate. Matching expectations, the median diversity index in Walton-won territories is 57.8, 1.6-times greater than the median value of 35.5 in Brown-won areas. (For those who care about such things, the difference is highly statistically significant, meaning that it cannot be explained by chance alone.)

The next graph shows how Buffalo residents split between Brown- and Walton-won territory when they’re grouped by age. Age groups are summarized using the following generational labels:

  • Generation Alpha (Born 2017 or Later)
  • Generation Z (Born 1999 to 2016)
  • Millennial (Born 1981 to 1998)
  • Generation X (Born 1965 to 1980)
  • Baby Boomer (Born 1946 to 1964)
  • Over 75 (Born 1945/Earlier)

Of these categories, Millennials are currently the largest age cohort in Buffalo, making up about 28% of the population. They are followed by Gen Zers (23%), Baby Boomers (20%), Gen Xers (18%), persons Over 75 (6%), and, finally, members of Gen Alpha (4%). Thus, despite being the principal city in an aging region, more than half of Buffalo’s residents are 40 years or younger.

The relevance of age comes into play when considering Ms. Walton’s unapologetic use and embrace of the labels like “socialist” and “Democratic socialism”. According to Gallup, attitudes toward socialism differ wildly by age. Among Millennials and Gen Zers, socialism is as popular as capitalism; but the term is strongly negative for Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and persons Over 75. While I’ll return to this point shortly, observe below that spaces where Ms. Walton won contain a majority of Buffalo’s Millennials, but disproportionately few members of older generations. Put another way, if national trends apply to Buffalo, then the City’s older residents, who are most likely to hold negative views of socialism, are relatively concentrated in spaces that voted for Mr. Brown. That’s probably not a coincidence.

Finally, let’s consider education and income together since the two characteristics tend to be highly correlated. The first of the two immediately following charts shows that supermajorities of the City’s college- and graduate school-educated residents live in areas won by Ms. Walton. At the other end of the spectrum, about 54% of the City’s adults who lack any high school education live in Walton-won districts. These patterns fit with national surveys showing that positive views of “socialism” peak at the top and bottom ends of the educational attainment spectrum.

That being said, adults with no high school education constitute the smallest educational attainment group in Buffalo, at only around 5% of persons 25 years or older. College- (17%) and graduate school-educated (13%) adults are much more numerous, combining to make up 30% of persons 25 years or over. Consequently, profiles of Walton-won territory will naturally take on more attributes of these latter (highly educated) groups relative to the former. As a case in point, the second figure below shows how households split between candidate territories with respect to household income. Linking the findings to educational attainment, which correlates directly with income, supermajorities of households at the upper end of the income spectrum – earning $100,000 or more per year – live in Walton-won districts. Notably, Walton-won districts also contain simple majorities of moderate- and middle-income households earning from $35,000-$50,000 and $75,000-$100,000. However, most households that earn below the City’s median household income (currently around $37,000) live in spaces won by Mr. Brown. That result is somewhat surprising given Ms. Walton’s unambiguous advocacy for low-income and working-class persons and families; though an explanation might lie in the aforementioned age structure of the population in the low-income districts where Brown won.

 

On that note, the “City that Ms. Walton Won” appears, at face value, to be a younger, more racially diverse, well-educated, mixed income Buffalo where residents have a greater tendency – whether by choice or necessity – to rent their homes.

The City that Mr. Brown Won

Rounding out the tale, the “City that Mr. Brown Won” is a comparatively segregated, predominantly African American Buffalo, situated almost exclusively East of Main Street, where somewhat older residents with lower educational attainment (on average) live in relatively low-income households, which they have a greater tendency to own rather than rent. According to Dr. Taylor, it’s a City disconnected from the Buffalo that many claim to be in “renaissance”: whatever renaissance has happened or is happening, he suggests, “hasn’t benefited poor people of color or the neighborhoods where they live.”

The City Moving Forward

Dr. Taylor’s characterization of the conspicuously low turnout in Brown-won territories (and historically reliable Brown strongholds) as a “protest no-vote” is, to me, not only a sharp analysis, but also a potential sign of what’s to come. I was recently fortunate to be part of a project to study current and future housing challenges in the Buffalo-Niagara region. The report from that effort is due to be released later this month. For now, I’ll just say that one of the tasks assigned to our research team was to try to understand how the region’s population might change in the coming decades. While there’s too much uncertainty involved in those types of endeavors to ever be completely confident in them – in Buffalo’s case, one large source of uncertainty is the all too real possibility of climate migration – one finding we’re fairly sure of is that Buffalo is becoming more racially diverse and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

What’s the connection? Well, in Dr. Taylor’s analysis, by sitting out rather than supporting either Mr. Brown – who arguably has not steered the “renaissance” to them – or Ms. Walton – with whom they may not agree or in whom they did not see a formidable challenge to Mr. Brown – voters in the “City that Brown Won” made room for an emerging shift in Buffalo’s political landscape. As older generations give way to new, and as the population continues to diversify and change, once successful electoral strategies that view power accumulation as a zero-sum competition among rival groups are going to die on arrival. The Buffalo of the future is one – and won – where leaders and institutions transcend boundaries and distribute power widely among all the City’s diverse residents and communities.

Returning once more to Dr. Taylor’s brilliant take, Ms. Walton is arguably a conduit to that future: “Every other African American politician has attempted to tie themselves primarily to progressive forces within the Black community…[Ms. Walton] was the first person that really tried to build a multiracial coalition…” And she won. Looking to the future, Buffalo is becoming, in many ways, the City that India Walton Won. Her challenge, and all of ours, heading into November and beyond, is to replace the barriers which separate that emerging City from the disaffected “City that Brown Won” with a network of new, inclusive, multidirectional bridges and universally accessible pathways.

Thirty years ago, writers in The Buffalo News referred to Main Street as “Buffalo’s very own Berlin Wall.” That wall was erected and fortified using decades of inequitable neoliberal policies and development strategies that put profits ahead of people and the planet. Perhaps Ms. Walton’s brand of “municipal socialism” is what’s needed to finally start tearing it down. Only when the wall falls will the tired tale of two cities give way to a more hopeful, open-ended narrative of what’s possible when two Buffalos become one.


Russell (Rusty) Weaver is a geographer and Director of Research at the Cornell University ILR Buffalo Co-Lab. Rusty is a data analyst who spends a lot of time crunching numbers and trying to make data more accessible to more people.

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