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A Tight Mayoral Race

When Los Angeles voters go to the polls next week to begin the process of selecting the city’s next mayor, they will be looking backward rather than forward. 

That’s not intended as an insult to Karen Bass, Rick Caruso and Kevin de Leon, the most visible of the soon-to-be-winnowed field of candidates. They have laid out vivid, detailed and occasionally realistic policy platforms on issues like crime, homelessness and job creation, which have come to dominate the public consciousness in the city. But the campaign to date seems to be centering around voters’ feelings about how Los Angeles has gotten into our current situation more than where we should go from here.

At the time this column was submitted, the most recent credible public poll on the race was taken by the Los Angeles Times and UC-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies back in early April. It showed Caruso and Bass in a statistical dead heat, with first-time candidate Caruso barely edging longtime officeholder Bass by a tiny 24-23 margin. De Leon, who had not yet begun his advertising campaign, was at 6 percent and a whopping 40 percent were still undecided. More recent private polling released by Bass’ campaign shows a similarly close race.

Angelenos were also asked in the Times-IGS Berkeley poll about their opinion of current mayor Eric Garcetti. They were just as divided in their feelings about the incumbent as they are about his most likely successors, with 48 percent of likely voters saying that they approved of the job he is doing in office and 46 percent saying that they disapprove of his performance. 

The two poll questions showed significant overlap, with a strong correlation between feelings about Garcetti and preferences in this campaign. Voters supportive of Caruso were more likely to disapprove of Garcetti’s performance, while those who backed Bass and De Leon were more likely to approve of the mayor. Self-described liberals and voters from minority communities tended to think highly of Garcetti and Bass. Conservatives, moderates and San Fernando Valley residents tended to be down on Garcetti and high on Caruso. 

We can assume that most eligible voters don’t follow the daily activities at City Hall all that closely. That means that their job approval of the mayor is probably based less on detailed knowledge of the decisions he has made and the actions he has taken and more on their general sense of how Los Angeles is doing at this particular time. Which means that voters who are satisfied want to keep things going in the same direction with a more traditional candidate whose background is in politics and those who are unhappy are going to look for a very different approach with a political outsider whose experience is in the private sector.

The other clear delineation between Caruso supporters and Bass or De Leon voters are the issues they prioritize. Homelessness is unsurprisingly the biggest issue in the campaign by a sizable margin, and Caruso maintains a small advantage on it. But Caruso’s edge on criminal justice policy, the second most important issue to voters is immense. Angelenos prefer him by a 4-1 message when it comes to crime. Bass does much better on housing affordability and climate change, the same issues on which voters give Garcetti higher marks.

Bass and De Leon would mean a continuation along the path traveled by Garcetti over the last several years. Caruso would represent a dramatic change of direction. 

While more polling will be released between now and next week’s primary, it’s likely that this basic dynamic will remain unchanged. Bass and De Leon would mean a continuation along the path traveled by Garcetti over the last several years. Caruso would represent a dramatic change of direction. 

Barring a last-minute comeback from De Leon that edges out Caruso rather than Bass, the battle lines from now until November seem very clear. The two surviving candidates will fight over a miniscule number of voters whose final decision may rest less on what they think about the candidates than their opinion of the current mayor.

Garcetti has indicated that he may not endorse anyone in the race. But he may not need to. It seems that for many Angelenos, the past actually is prologue.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” (www/lawac.org) on Tuesdays at 5 PM.

Source: Jewish Journal

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