There is a lot of talk these days about the so-called “Obama factor” and the role it might play in San Diego’s city attorney or City Council races in November.

The thinking goes that record numbers of new voters will turn out to vote for president, and their presence in the voting booths will reshape the races further down the ballot. Democrats, notably City Attorney Mike Aguirre, are especially keen on the phenomena because the pool of new voters skews Democratic.

But local candidates should not count on everyone who votes for president to vote in their races, nor should they count on them voting along party lines all the way down the ballot, said John Nienstedt, a local pollster who works primarily for Republican candidates.

“There are a lot of confounding issues to the idea that Obama turnout translates to coattails,” Nienstedt said.

Using the 2004 election as a benchmark, Nienstedt expects a 5 percent-to-20 percent drop-off from presidential voting to voting in races down the ballot. In 2004, 8 percent fewer voters voted for mayor than president; and 17 percent fewer voted for city attorney. And because turnout is expected to be higher this year than in 2004, the drop-off will likely be higher as well, Nienstedt said.

And even if a new voter does vote all the way down the ballot, he or she will not necessarily vote consistently. First-time or occasional voters have proven to be less disciplined than habitual voters, and are prone to “mental coin flipping,” Nienstedt said.

Voters also won’t have a party guide on the ballot to distinguish the local Republican or Democratic candidates. Unlike in the presidential election, the names on the ballot for city attorney or City Council don’t display the parties of the candidates.

However, Neinstedt is not completely discounting a presidential turnout effect, especially if the local races are close. “If a candidate wins or loses by a half a percentage point, you can expect them to attribute it to the Obama factor.”

And for those not already confused, Neinstedt offers the possibility of a “lack of an Obama factor playing a role.” If Obama or McCain looks to be way ahead when polls close on the East Coast, new voters in San Diego may decide to stay home.


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