Rethinking San Diego’s Democratic Electoral Strategy

ImageBy Andy Cohen

There are some valuable lessons to be learned from the recent mayoral special election here in San Diego, and as we head into the 2014 primary and general elections it would be wise to take stock of what happened so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.  In case anyone’s forgotten, Republican Kevin Faulconer beat Democrat David Alvarez by a nine percentage point margin on Election Day.  The final margin ended up being closer to six points, but it was never really in doubt as the first returns rolled in on Feb. 11.

David Alvarez was a very good candidate.  He was the obvious choice of progressives.  He is a young Latino who has a record of soothing tensions in difficult negotiating arenas and coming out the other side with a deal everyone can live with.  He’s on the right side of all of the hot button policy issues that the progressive base holds dear.  He’s the kind of candidate that in theory should have drawn base voters to the polls in droves and maximized the Democrats’ huge registration advantage over Republicans—there are nearly 90,000 more registered Democrats in the City of San Diego than there are Registered Republicans.  Republicans are even outnumbered by NPP voters (no party preference) by nearly 16,000 voters.

When you outraise and outspend your opponent by nearly $1.5 million in a mayoral special election and still lose by six percentage points, and you have a voter registration advantage of 90,000 voters, it might be time to seriously rethink your election strategy.

The Democratic strategy, it seems, was designed to motivate base voters to get to the polls.  Massive GOTV efforts were employed in neighborhoods south of Interstate 8—neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Democratic voters.  Get them to show up on Election Day, and Alvarez has a chance.

Only they didn’t show up to the polls.  They didn’t vote.  In the meantime, more moderate Democratic voters were largely ignored, and the enormous chunk of independent voters in San Diego were completely ignored…….by Democrats at least.  There were no discernible efforts to reach out to those voters in the middle, and it likely cost the Democrats the opportunity to hold on to the mayor’s office.  Kevin Faulconer, on the other hand, did everything he could to woo those independent voters, running as far away from the Republican label as he could in an effort to appeal directly to those independents and middle of the road Democratic voters who likely cast their ballot for Nathan Fletcher in the primary.

What Faulconer knew was that Republican voters were going to vote for him anyway.  He didn’t need to do anything to win their support.  He already had it.  It was those middle-of-the-road voters that were the key to his chances at victory, and that’s who he targeted.

Meanwhile, despite having Nathan Fletcher’s endorsement, the Alvarez campaign did nothing to reach out directly to Fletcher voters.  They did not ask for the Fletcher campaign’s contact lists in order to reach out to them directly, and they did not have Fletcher do any direct campaigning for Alvarez, which I’ve been told that Fletcher would have been happy to do.

The Democrats and Alvarez stuck to their base strategy, and because of it, and because the base did not turn out in significant numbers, they lost, and lost badly.  Comparing the turnout numbers in precincts that Alvarez won to the precincts Faulconer won is quite disconcerting if you’re a Democrat.  We’re talking high 20’s to mid 30’s for Alvarez, and high 30’s to mid 40’s for Faulconer, with a sprinkling of 50 and 60 percent turnouts here and there to pull his numbers up.

In 2012 Scott Peters ran for Congress in the 52nd District as a moderate Democrat.  He and progressive champion Lori Saldaña were vying for a slot in the runoff against Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray.  Peters won that primary race against Saldaña, and went on to narrowly beat Bilbray in the general election.  Had Saldaña moved on to the general, Brian Bilbray would likely still be a member of Congress today.  But Peters was able to win because he appealed directly to the middle voters.  The voter registration split for that election was roughly one third each for Dems, Repubs, and NPP’s.

Need proof that the middle won?  According to an analysis by iNewsource.org, in the 2012 mayoral race where the City of San Diego and 52nd Congressional Districts overlap, Carl DeMaio won 120 of the 189 precincts that Scott Peters won, while Bob Filner won only 69, and only one precinct that Brian Bilbray carried. 

Those moderate Dems and independent voters are looking for someone who appeals to them, who will reach out and communicate directly with them.  Remember, there are 192,000 registered NPP voters in San Diego.  And while that may not be completely relevant to the upcoming primary and general elections, it’s a fairly consistent theme throughout the San Diego region—huge numbers of independent voters who have the power to swing an election.

Now, those 2012 results could be merely a matter of familiarity as San Diego’s go-to political analyst Carl Luna suggests, since Peters did represent the City Council District 1 centered in La Jolla.  But I suspect it’s a lot more than that, since the City Council District only accounts for a small portion of the 52nd Congressional District.

Moving forward, Democratic candidates for public office would be wise to consider the middle instead of catering to a base that is unlikely to show up at the polls in a non-presidential election year.  If you’re a Republican running in a heavily Republican district, then it might make sense to all wingnut in the campaign, since those people actually vote.  That doesn’t work on the Democratic side, as we just found out the hard way.  Democrats cannot win elections by appealing to the base alone.

More importantly, if Democrats run solid, moderate candidates with strong backing (hint hint, DCCC) in the 49th and 50th Congressional Districts this year, they might actually have a chance to unseat some of the most divisive and bitterly partisan Republicans in Congress—not to mention getting rid of the guy who thinks it’s a good idea to nuke Iran.  (Dems might actually have that moderate candidate for the 50th, but more on that at a later date.) 

And in the City Council Districts, moderate Democratic candidates could very well win seats that were previously held by Republicans in District 2 and District 6 (both districts that voted for Faulconer in the mayoral race).  Candidates brandishing their progressive credentials have no chance.

The goal should be to actually win an election and not to make some sort of ideological stand.  Yet unfortunately that’s kind of where we’ve been headed in the last two election cycles.  It is better to win and get most of what you want than it is to lose and get nothing.

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3 comments so far

  1. hOBie on

    Spot-on Andy. Sorry hear the SDFP moved to “silence” what appears to me as simply an analysis of winning (and losing) strategy. When a Party treats a moderate in the same light as those whom support the opposing Party, it is a recipe for continued defeat. It is very much a mirror image to their counterparts in the Tea Party.

    • Andy on

      The Progressives are becoming the Democratic version of the Tea Party, if they’re not there already.

  2. TomD on

    You’re right. It is ironic that Faulconer and Alvarez had essentially the same message: Faulconer said Alvarez was too liberal, while Alvarez said Faulconer wasn’t liberal enough. There’s nothing surprising about the margin — nearly all non-incumbent San Diego Mayor’s races are within six points — or about this result — once again the candidate perceived to be more moderate won.


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