Vashon is not the most liberal city in the nation. In fact, according to federal records of political donations, it’s not even close.
Stories early last week in The Washington Post, Seattle Times and other publications reported that a California political startup called CrowdPac had used federal donation records dating back to 2002 to conclude that political donors from “Vashon Island” were the most left-leaning in the nation. In a sense, these stories were correct, as CrowdPac did report that “Vashon Island” has the nation’s most left-leaning record of donations.
But what CrowdPac’s study apparently failed to realize is that “Vashon” and “Vashon Island” are the same place and that the vast majority of donors on the island identified as being from “Vashon.” The donations from the “Vashon” crowd are only slightly more liberal than those from Seattle. Only a relative handful identified themselves as being from “Vashon Island,” and their donations caused Vashon Island to be named the most liberal place in America.
Vashon Island came in at 9.9 out of 10 on Crowdpac’s liberal spectrum, but searching for just “Vashon” on the Crowdpac site yields a far different result. Vashon comes in at a 5.7 on Crowdpac’s liberal scale, putting it in 76th place and .7 more points liberal than nearby Seattle.
A search through the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) donation receipt database tells the same story: There is a discrepancy with the city name donors use. The FEC reports that between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 of this year, there were only 18 donations from six donors who listed their city as Vashon Island. All but two of those people made multiple donations to the ActBlue PAC, a democratic, progressive political action committee. One of the donors not giving to the PAC supported the democrat Patty Murray in her campaign for Senate; the other donor supported independent presidential candidate Jim Webb.
Meanwhile, the FEC reports 1,468 donations were made to political campaigns this year from people listing Vashon as their city. A look at 300 of the Vashon donations made this year shows more than 200 were in support of a democratic cause (Bernie 2016, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or ActBlue). While liberal donations were the majority, a conservative population is reflected in the donors who listed Vashon as their city. At least 30 of the 300 donations reviewed by The Beachcomber and made this year by those listing Vashon as their city were made to conservative candidates like Carly For President (Carly Fiorina) and Carson America (Ben Carson).
University of Washington Political Science Professor Mark A. Smith said that the Vashon-Vashon Island mixup means that CrowdPac’s 9.9 ranking is based on the donations of the six people who listed Vashon Island as their city. The fact makes the study “flimsy.” He said Crowdpac’s study is not the best judge of the political leanings of cities because it’s really measuring the political leanings of campaign contributors, a small percentage of the population.
“It’s kind of a data quirk,” Smith said. “It’s a fun story to play around with at first, but then you look at it closer, and you realize it’s not what it seems. Vashon Island is very liberal, but would it be number one in the nation? It’s very hard to be number one at anything.”
He said the 5.7 ranking that comes up when you type just “Vashon” into the study results is a much more believable view of the island’s political nature. He ultimately said that he believes the best gauge for political leanings is to look at the voting precinct results from the 2008 presidential election. According to a Stanford website called the Stanford Election Atlas, all of Vashon’s 19 voting precincts had more than 56 percent of voters casting ballots for Obama. Votes for McCain fell anywhere between 12 and 18 percent per precinct with slightly more conservative votes on Vashon’s northeast end, in Burton and on northern Maury Island.
Another University of Washington professor, Larry Knopp, teaches at the school’s Tacoma campus and is a political and cultural geographer who has researched voting patterns and their connection to the larger political culture of places. He found another issue with the Crowdpac study beyond the Vashon-Vashon Island mixup.
In an interview with The Beachcomber, he said he felt the study had to have been conducted on a per capita basis, which skewed its results toward small towns with a unique set of residents.
“They didn’t say in (The Washington Post) article, but it must have been on a somewhat per capita basis because Vashon (Island) is too small to stand out on its own against a place like New York City or any other huge city,” Knopp said. “They’re all small places, but they’re small places that are politically engaged and well off enough to give to political candidates. They’re special places anyway just because of that, and that’s an oddity of the study that skewed the results to smaller places.”
He also said it was important to keep in mind that the major problem with this study is the fact that it’s difficult to define liberal and conservative, and that the study uses popular assumptions of the definitions.
“What’s liberal and what’s conservative?” Knopp asked. “You’re looking at populations in these politically-active, relatively exclusive places that are inclined to donate.”
Knopp then elaborated on the nature of the rural areas, like Vashon, that go against the assumed political grain of conservatism. He said these areas usually have at least one of three qualities: They’re a small, college town; they’re a small retirement community in a large city’s shadow, and/or they’re a place that offers natural amenities and a certain cultural reason to seek the place out as a hometown. Vashon, he said, aligns most closely with the third category. He explained that the environment and ideology Vashon fosters is due to the low-density population, high cost of living and high expense to access the island (ferries). Those three things create an environment that is “politically-progressive,” but excludes most “downwardly mobile, working-and middle-class” conservatives. He said that the island’s population is a product of “rural gentrification.”
“The rural gentrification movement has origins in the counter-culture movement in the 1960s and 70s, but it ended up becoming just a straight-up gentrification where people who wanted to live there bid up the cost of living,” Knopp said. “It’s low-density living with environmental amenities and access, and it’s the movement of self-consciously liberal and economically-privileged individuals. The movement of this population creates lots of exclusions in the process, and in-movers (newcomers) are generally aware of it. They value where they live in part because of the political culture of the place.”
He also pointed out that Vashon has one of the nation’s highest rates of same-sex households, though he did not want to push the same-sex couples and liberalism correlation too far. But, he said the statistic could add to the “self-selection process” for people who move here.
Island historian Bruce Haulman seconded Knopp’s gentrifcation theory and said Vashon is a “complex amalgam” of different social and political values. He said the island’s conservatives are regularly overlooked and “get lost in the hurrah” of the liberal majority. But Haulman also offered his knowledge about why Vashon has the liberal-majority political environment it does and said the aforementioned gentrification is a key player. He said the Vashon of the 1950s and 60s voted Republican “across the board,” but that all changed in the 1970s.
“It was a gradual change, but through the 1980s and 90s, agriculture died, and the island became a service and commuter economy with all of the Boeing employees. That changed Vashon,” Haulman said. “Throughout the 90s and into the 2000s, Vashon gentrified, and the LGBT population really came in. There were lots of new people moving here.”
He continued to say that, Vashon name mixup aside, the study does back up what we already knew about Vashon in terms of the passionate people who live here.
“People committed to causes on Vashon are really committed,” Haulman said. “People open up their pocketbooks when they care, and they care about politics.”