Robert Gehrke: Here’s what a deep dive into the vote counts tells us about Mendenhall’s decisive victory in Salt Lake City

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erin Mendenhall takes the stage to speak to supporters after taking a lead over her opponent, Luz Escamilla, on election night Tuesday, November 5, 2019.

In the end, the race to be the next Salt Lake City mayor wasn’t all that close, with Erin Mendenhall opening up an election night lead that proved insurmountable.

Despite having more than 9,700 ballots left to count, state Sen. Luz Escamilla conceded defeat Wednesday. When the rest of the ballots are counted, there’s a good chance she’ll cut into the margin a little, but needing to win four out of five of the remaining votes, the hole was just too deep.

Escamilla started the general election at a disadvantage, finishing more than a thousand votes behind in the primary and Mendenhall’s campaign didn’t let up.

In a head-to-head comparison, Mendenhall gained ground against Escamilla in 97 of the city’s 124 precincts, turning 18 where she finished behind Escamilla in the primary in her favor. Escamilla managed to flip just one her way.

Robert Gehrke

Digging deeper into the tallies from Tuesday night shows us a few other factors that contributed to Mendenhall’s victory and some interesting insight into why Council Chairman Charlie Luke is basically deadlocked with challenger Dan Dugan.

West side wash

Part of Escamilla’s game plan coming into the election was to speak to the often-neglected west side voters, hoping that the prospect of becoming the city’s first Latina mayor would give them a reason to turn out in big numbers.

In the primary, it paid off and big victories in those precincts west of Interstate 15 can largely be credited for her making it to this week’s general election. Head-to-head — excluding the other candidates — Escamilla trounced Mendenhall in the west side precincts, 73% to 27% in that August matchup.

Those voters stayed on Escamilla’s side this week — she won 20 of the 23 precincts west of I-15 and she and Mendenhall are currently tied in one. But it appears the level of support in those districts sputtered some since the primary. The results we have so far show Escamilla beating Mendenhall 57-43 in those same precincts.

That’s not winning for Mendenhall, but neither is it getting obliterated. In fact, if you look at the precincts where Mendenhall made up the most ground since the primary, nine of the 11 precincts are in Escamilla’s west side power base.

Mendenhall’s spokesman, Ian Koski, said after the primary the campaign had more resources — more staff, more voters and a larger advertising budget — to focus on everyone, including west side voters. Mendenhall also spent a lot of time knocking on doors in the area, he said, and they were able to target policy proposals on the west side, specifically her commitment to plant 1,000 trees a year in the area.

As it stands right now, Mendenhall only lost by 674 votes on the west side — a figure that will, of course, shift in the coming days — but the point is that it was a margin she could live with.

Erin’s home turf

Mendenhall obviously did well across the city, but perhaps unsurprisingly her strongest support came from the area that overlaps with the region she already represents on the City Council.

There’s an area covering about 1.5 square miles going from 800 South to 1700 South and from 700 East up to 1300 East and the area adjacent to East High School where Mendenhall just dominated.

In those 10 precincts, Mendenhall racked up 70% of the vote, a 1,258 vote advantage that more than offset Escamilla’s narrow victories on the west side of the interstate.

Along that “Tale of Two Cities” vein, Escamilla only won four districts east of I-15, and they were four of the most affluent in the city — a little knot of mostly condos in the heart of downtown, the neighborhood adjacent to the Bonneville Golf Course, the farthest east side of the east bench, and the precinct around the Salt Lake Country Club.

Precinct 128, the one near the Bonneville course, is the only precinct that Escamilla flipped in her favor since the primary.

Charlie’s Waterluke

Maybe the most surprising result of the night was the nail-biter that has developed between Luke and Dugan. Right now, Dugan leads by just five votes.

The preliminary results are surprising for a couple reasons. First, because Luke won the primary comfortably. Second, voters around the rest of the city didn’t seem inclined to punish the incumbents for the council’s role on the inland port, which was central to Dugan’s case. The rest of the City Council candidates coasted and Mendenhall won decisively in Luke’s District 6.

But there is a clear pattern of voters fleeing Luke’s camp since the primary and flocking to Dugan, and nowhere is it more evident than Precinct 132 northeast of Sugar House Park.

Luke won 52% of the vote there in the August primary, Dugan won 37% and J.T. Martin finished with 11%.

But in Tuesday’s results, Dugan dominated, 62% to 38%. That kind of swing — from a 15-point win to a nearly 24-point loss — is astonishing, especially since Luke is still winning the surrounding precincts and Mendenhall won the precinct 65-35.

Dugan attributes it to shoe leather. His goal going into the race was to knock on all 8,600 doors in the district and that started in his own neighborhood and fanned out. After surviving the primary he looked at where he had done well and where he hadn’t and started targeting neighborhoods — the Sugar House park area being one of them.

“My wife and I went out three or four times a week knocking on doors and that face-to-face engagement really showed people our concern and we got to hear their concerns,” he told me.

Dugan’s message initially focused on his inland port opposition, cleaner air and less traffic, but toward the end he began talking more about campaign contributions Luke received from developers and billboard companies.

A few other precincts also saw big swings, like the 27-point reversal in a sprawling precinct around the mouth of Emigration Canyon, and a 24-point shift in a Bonneville Hills precinct.

Luke said he knew the race was going to be close going in and he was surprised by some of the numbers in some of the precincts.

“He was out working, I was working. It just shows it is a dynamic race,” he said. Luke said some of the negativity seemed to stick to him, but perhaps didn’t hurt Mendenhall as much in the district.

Obviously, in a contest where the margin stands at five votes, any movement matters. But if Luke comes out on the losing end once all the votes are counted, the topsy-turvy Precinct 132 will have to be the wildest surprise of the race.

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