Why the San Diego Mayor’s Race Should Worry Democrats

Liberal groups out-organized and outspent Republicans in a city that’s trending Democratic. Their candidate still lost badly.

National Journal
Scott Bland
Feb. 12, 2014, 5:54 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­an Kev­in Faul­con­er’s big win in San Diego’s may­or­al race Tues­day high­lighted the first case of what could be a per­sist­ent Demo­crat­ic prob­lem in 2014: low turnout.

Faul­con­er has a middle-of-the-road repu­ta­tion built for a city that has typ­ic­ally elec­ted GOP may­ors over the past two-plus dec­ades, which helped make him the fa­vor­ite in the spe­cial elec­tion to suc­ceed dis­graced ex-May­or Bob Fil­ner. But Demo­crats also have a 14-point re­gis­tra­tion ad­vant­age over Re­pub­lic­ans in San Diego, which gave Pres­id­ent Obama more than 60 per­cent of its votes in 2012 as it lif­ted the lib­er­al Fil­ner in­to the may­or’s of­fice.

And des­pite help from an enorm­ous field op­er­a­tion look­ing to make those num­bers work for Demo­crat­ic spe­cial-elec­tion can­did­ate Dav­id Al­varez, Faul­con­er still garnered al­most 55 per­cent of the vote as many few­er people cast bal­lots than in 2012.

It’s a prob­lem Demo­crats will be try­ing to solve across the coun­try in 2014, when key groups of sup­port­ers, such as minor­it­ies and un­mar­ried wo­men, are less likely to turn out than in pres­id­en­tial years. It is one of the reas­ons Re­pub­lic­ans are with­in strik­ing dis­tance to re­take the Sen­ate and are heav­ily favored to keep the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives. It’s why Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors such as Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana, where the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an share of the elect­or­ate dropped by a sixth in the last midterm elec­tion, are en­dangered.

Ma­jor­ity-minor­ity San Diego starts out as more friendly turf for Demo­crats, but the loc­als face the chal­lenge of turn­ing the demo­graph­ic ad­vant­age in­to a polit­ic­al one.

“I would say San Diego’s polit­ics are be­hind its demo­graph­ics, and it’s about wheth­er we can catch up,” San Diego and Im­per­i­al Counties Labor Coun­cil sec­ret­ary-treas­urer Richard Bar­rera said in a pre-elec­tion in­ter­view. His group ran an in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ure com­mit­tee that raised and spent more than $3.7 mil­lion on Al­varez’s be­half. “We can nev­er just as­sume that be­cause we’ve got an in­creas­ingly large Latino pop­u­la­tion, Asi­an pop­u­la­tion, young­er pop­u­la­tion, that that will trans­late in­to people vot­ing on Elec­tion Day.”

Turnout levels for this fall’s midterm elec­tions will not drop as sharply as they did for San Diego’s ir­reg­u­lar Feb­ru­ary vote. Any drop tends to work against Demo­crats, al­though the party hopes get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tions and pave­ment-pound­ing labor al­lies can help make up some slack later in 2014.

Nearly 470,000 people voted in the pre­vi­ous San Diego may­or­al race, a massive turnout that co­in­cided with the pres­id­en­tial race, a hotly con­tested con­gres­sion­al elec­tion, and sev­er­al con­sequen­tial statewide bal­lot ini­ti­at­ives. On Tues­day, few­er than 290,000 voters cast bal­lots. That works out to about 43 per­cent of re­gistered voters, at the very bot­tom edge of turnout levels Demo­crats were hop­ing for to cap­it­al­ize on Al­varez’s ap­par­ent surge late in the cam­paign.

Fil­ner’s elec­tion in 2012 was the first win by a Demo­crat since 1988, “and his vic­tory was at­trib­uted in large part to get-out-the-vote ef­forts by labor,” said Tom Shep­ard, a former Fil­ner strategist who also helped elect three pre­vi­ous Re­pub­lic­an may­ors. “But it’s dif­fi­cult to as­sess their im­pact since it was a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion and, ob­vi­ously, that be­nefited labor. They have clearly ap­plied their ef­forts here.”¦ The ques­tion is wheth­er they can win without a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion?”

Demo­crats had big, late hopes of shap­ing the San Diego elect­or­ate just enough to make good on Al­varez’s late surge in mo­mentum and auto­mated polling in the dis­trict. A large chunk of the $5 mil­lion-plus that went in­to Al­varez’s cam­paign and out­side ef­forts was fo­cused on turnout. Bar­rera said his group alone had more than 800 people walk­ing pre­cincts the week­end be­fore the elec­tion, fo­cus­ing on the Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing but lower-turnout neigh­bor­hoods south of In­ter­state 8. Adding in oth­er out­side groups and the Al­varez cam­paign it­self, well over 1,000 Demo­crat­ic field work­ers were comb­ing the city for votes be­fore Elec­tion Day, ac­cord­ing to Bar­rera.

Already, Demo­crats are gear­ing up to make sim­il­ar large-scale ef­forts for 2014’s reg­u­larly sched­uled elec­tions. The Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee re­cently laid out plans for a massive $60 mil­lion field op­er­a­tion spread over 10 key states, ac­cord­ing to The New York Times. Not shar­ing the bal­lot with Pres­id­ent Obama may help some mod­er­ate Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors flaunt their in­de­pend­ence, but they will still need help from some voters who don’t typ­ic­ally vote un­less White House con­trol is up for grabs. Last year, Terry McAul­iffe’s suc­cess­ful cam­paign for gov­ernor in Vir­gin­ia touted its use of data and ana­lyt­ics to boost both per­sua­sion and turnout ef­forts among key groups.

In San Diego, labor will get more cracks at win­ning the turnout battle in 2014. There are sev­er­al loc­al bal­lot meas­ures, in­clud­ing an ef­fort to boost the min­im­um wage, that will draw heavy at­ten­tion over the next few months, and Demo­crats’ may­or­al bo­gey­man of 2012, Re­pub­lic­an Carl De­Maio, is run­ning for Con­gress against fresh­man Demo­crat­ic Rep. Scott Peters.

But for now, the may­or’s race is a re­mind­er of how turnout can work against Demo­crats when a pres­id­ent isn’t on the bal­lot.

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