Why Stoney won

Many Americans are still recovering from last week’s shocking election results. Here in Richmond, we had another stunner: Levar Stoney’s surprise win in the race for Mayor. Former state representative Joe Morrissey had been considered the front-runner for most of the fall, and a strong showing by Stoney, while not impossible, was just supposed to get him to a runoff with Morrissey or former Venture Richmond head Jack Berry. Instead, Stoney eked out the most votes in five of the city’s nine election districts, giving him the win outright.

Now that we've had a few days to process – and maybe to distract us a little from the results of that other election – it might be a good time to ask: How did Stoney do it, and what did we learn? A few things:

1. The polls had it wrong. I’ve been warning all along that we shouldn’t put too much stock in the polling numbers we saw early on. We didn’t have the kind of systemic polling error in Richmond that some think happened in the national election. But local elections are hard to poll reliably and regularly. We had only one or two public polls, and they probably overstated Morrissey's support due to his higher name recognition. (An October poll showed almost 40% of RVA voters as "undecided.")

As Richmond residents learned more about the other candidates, the numbers shifted to favor Berry and Stoney instead of Morrissey. The early poll numbers froze a narrative of Morrissey’s “solid lead” into place, but that lead wasn’t as near as solid as it seemed, as he finished a distant third place.

2. Stoney ran a pro campaign. As I pointed out before the election, Stoney recruited a young but seasoned campaign staff from outside the city. For example, his campaign manager, Hannah Burke, had worked as a field organizer for Virginia Governor Terry MacAuliffe and helped run finances for Martin O'Malley's presidential campaign. (I don't know her future plans, but Ralph Northam might want to give her a call.)

Despite an early fundraising advantage, Stoney seemed mired in third place -- or worse, as a late August poll had him in FIFTH place with a paltry 7% of the vote. But he and his campaign never panicked, sticking with a late bloomer strategy that had him sprinting across the city (literally, in one campaign ad) after Labor Day to spread his message. And while he had the money for slickly produced TV ads and campaign mailers -- and wasn’t above negative, even dishonest ones -- the campaign didn’t ignore the shoe leather.

Berry's campaign wasn’t run by idiots either. But he relied more on local folks, including a campaign manager with ties to Virginia Republicans. Berry eventually outraised his rival, but it seems like it was Stoney who got the most bang for his buck.

3. Campaigns, including Stoney’s, turned out voters. Election results haven’t been certified yet, but early numbers suggest that national voter turnout is down from 2012. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that VA turnout, while also down slightly, still rates well compared to the rest of the country (over 70% compared to ~57% nationally). And yet turnout in Richmond was even higher, probably over 75%.

Stoney figured to do well among a diverse cross-section of voters, but his particular appeal was to black voters turned off by Morrissey and the city's millennials and youth. It seems like Stoney's campaign was able to get these people to the polls. (Anecdotally, local political analyst Bob Holsworth credited Stoney’s surprise win in the 2nd district to VCU students coming out for Stoney in droves.)

We need more ground level data to find out what really happened. But it seems like the candidate that nobody knew in August became the one that most people turned out for in November.

4. Race matters. The national election results have proven this, of course, but we should learn the same lesson here in our Southern, largely segregated city.

Even the most ardent Stoney supporter would probably admit that Jack Berry is a well-meaning, honorable man. He fell short in the overall vote by just a few percentage points, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Stoney offered him a job. (Former candidate Jon Baliles already has a position on the Stoney transition team, not to mention a blossoming bromance with Stoney.) But Berry had a major obstacle against him from the start: the election rules.

Berry, essentially a representative of the city's white business elite, drew most of his support from the Richmond’s wealthier (and whiter) West End. The city's arcane election rules -- again, you must win the most votes in 5 of the city’s 9 election districts -- were put in place to prevent exactly a candidate like Berry from winning by winning a majority of white voters with little black support.

To overcome this structural obstacle, Berry needed to make the case to the city's African-American voters, particularly in the East End districts, that he was the guy for the job. Maybe, in Stoney's absence, he could have. But Stoney had the demographic appeal and background to turn out black voters AND white voters across the city.

University of Richmond professor Thad Williamson, who is now running Stoney's transition team, made the case for Stoney back in October. Successfully leading the city, he wrote,

means being able to walk into an RRHA community and have an honest conversation with residents who are rightly skeptical about plans for change, worried about what’s going to happen to them, and earn their trust. Because of his life experience, his ability to acknowledge injustice while being determined to rectify it, and his ability to communicate clearly with everyone, and perhaps most importantly, his listening skills, Levar Stoney is best positioned to do just that.

Williamson left unspoken the other thing Stoney has going for him here: his skin color. We'd all like to pretend that race doesn’t matter, and that it's a poor shortcut for ability and accomplishment. But it lends credibility, the kind that Berry might lack.

Stoney can quickly lose that credibility if he ignores the needs of those same RRHA public housing communities, as well as the rest of the city's black voters. Still, Williamson argued that Stoney had the best chance to unite the “two Richmonds” we’ve talked about this campaign season. Voters agreed. Now the new Mayor just has to do it.