Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008 | In every San Diego election, there are one or two persuasive theories that make the rounds and fuel amateur prognostication during the endless lunches downtown and the meetings over coffee.
In 2004, when Donna Frye jumped in the mayoral race with a last-minute write-in campaign, the theory was that she would take support away from Ron Roberts who was challenging incumbent Mayor Dick Murphy. Roberts’ supporters challenged her candidacy legally. Murphy’s stayed quiet.
Many believed she had handed the race to the embattled Murphy.
Then-candidate Mike Aguirre was expected to also get a boost in his already formidable lead in the race for city attorney. Some thought the fired-up Frye supporters would bolster his bid too.
Well, Frye did take support from Roberts. But she also, shockingly, siphoned it from Murphy. Just enough, in fact, to give her a narrow victory had they counted those unfilled ballot bubbles.
This year, the theory making the rounds, and making local Republicans sweat, is that a surge of Barack Obama supporters will affect all local races in favor of Democrats or certain ballot proposals.
Many supporters of Marti Emerald, for instance, in the District 7 City Council race, believe she will benefit from such a bounce. Some wonder if that’s her only chance.
Others think the effort to ban booze on the beach will suffer if young Obama supporters flood the polls and vote against it.
Finally, some have seen polls showing now City Attorney Mike Aguirre behind his opponent, Jan Goldsmith, but they believe that this blue Obama wave will carry the incumbent safely to shore.
Some Republicans are even fearing a sort of exaggerated Obama effect on local elections — that the Democrat will show so much strength that when the first polls close on the East Coast, the result will become clear and it will only be perhaps 5 p.m. here with a couple of hours of voting left to be done. The worry is that Republicans will have even less reason to go to the polls as they listen with sadness to the news from Virginia, Florida and Indiana (polls close in Indiana at 3 p.m. Pacific. If Obama wins or is really close in Indiana, he’s going to win the election.)
These worries, though, are without merit.
I think Aguirre might still win this race, for instance. But it won’t be because of Barack Obama. I’ve never seen Aguirre surf, maybe he can. But he’d have to be pretty good to catch this wave.
I’m not predicting this, but I certainly agree that Obama could have a strong showing Tuesday. He may win in a landslide and it may be clear early. But I don’t believe this would significantly affect local races and here’s why.
Anybody who has rarely or never voted before but turns out to vote for Obama will not necessarily even know who these people are down the ballot. There will be nothing on the ballot to indicate that people like Marti Emerald or Mike Aguirre are Democrats. This idea that people will naturally check the box next to all the D’s on the bottom half of the ballot is weakened by the fact there are no actual “D’s” next to listings of San Diego city candidates — as opposed to state candidates and national congressional candidates.
This challenge could have been overcome. Aggressive campaigns to identify themselves as Democrats could have helped people like Emerald, Aguirre and Sherri Lightner, the District 1 City Council candidate.
But they did not run very partisan specific campaigns. Go to Marti Emerald’s website, for example. There isn’t a thing on the front page of it that identifies her as a Democrat. Here Democrats across the country are salivating at the idea that they will have their biggest electoral victories since Watergate and Emerald’s hardly flying the party colors — even when some of her supporters believe that catching this Democratic wave is her main hope for victory.
Perhaps she sees another route to victory. More power to her. Whatever that route may be, it’s obviously not a ride on this Obama wave.
Then there’s Aguirre. The city attorney has actually deftly exploited the partisanship inherent in his contest. He has, very intelligently, pointed out his party affiliation, his endorsement by the party and his opponent’s Republicanism at every possible opportunity — including the very interesting prime-time KUSI debate the other day.
On the other hand, Goldsmith, Aguirre’s rival, has also deftly anticipated this. He’s collected as many Democratic endorsements as possible. Aguirre’s combative style left him few allies in his own party and he failed to secure the endorsement of the local Democratic Party’s backbone — the Labor Council.
But more than that, Aguirre’s efforts at public forums are not enough to communicate to less interested voters — the Barackers — that he’s the Democrat in the race. With all the obstacles in his way, he needed to mount a well-organized, well-funded campaign that had him all but riding a big-D Donkey to get Barackers to associate him with Obama.
Aguirre may be a lot of things, but well organized he is not. And his fundraising has been anemic while at the same time, he has spent far less of his own money on this race than he did in 2004.
Again, Aguirre may still win this race. He finally seems to have found a way of selling his anti-establishment message and he has landed some effective attacks on Goldsmith. Also, I remember 2004 when everyone believed that Aguirre would win by a massive margin only to watch the returns come in and see him not only vulnerable but potentially losing.
I know how these races can tighten. I’m just saying that it won’t tighten because of the Obama wave.
Finally, there’s another important factor. Republicans will show up at the polls no matter what happens nationally. They may not be crazy excited, but there is no reason to expect there will be some kind of unexpected decline in their participation.
They already know that they aren’t going to win California for John McCain so early results in Obama’s favor won’t change anything for them. And some of them are further motivated to vote on the socially divisive Propositions 4 and 8 — the abortion-notification effort and the ban on gay marriage.
And will the Obama wave even be very big here? Sure, some people project he may win California by as much as 24 percent. But does that translate into a major youth surge in his favor locally? I don’t believe so. I think that an average or above-average number of Californians will vote. But it won’t be an eye-popping increase. It’s just that the people who will vote look like they simply overwhelmingly prefer Obama.
This doesn’t, however, mean that there will be a whole new population of Obama supporters showing up at local polling stations. Why? Obama’s vaunted get-out-the-vote effort doesn’t exist in California. Because of his lead, no volunteers or organizations are really needed here. Buses are sending passionate Obama supporters from our area up to Las Vegas to knock on doors and get out the early vote in a state where it’s not as certain the Democrat will prevail.
There may be an Obama wave here, but you better have a long board to catch it because it’s not going to be very big. Again, just to be clear, he may win the state by an astonishing margin, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be because of a surge of new voters who are paying so little attention to local races that they will blindly seek out Democrats on the down ballot to support.
On the other hand, support levels for the beach booze ban may erode in the midst of even a small Obama wave. Why? Because even a small group of new Obama voters will understand where they stand on ballot proposition that asks them a direct question: Do you want to make the ban on booze on the beach permanent or not? They don’t have to know anything about the candidates. They can just say yes or no.
If the ballot were structured like that for local Democrats, they might benefit from even a small Obama wave as well.
But ballot questions for local city races don’t say: “Would you like to vote for the candidate in this race whose philosophy most closely aligns with that of Barack Obama?”
Nope. Instead, they have two names to choose from; that’s all. It was the candidates’ job to catch Obama’s wave if they wanted it.
If they didn’t, they better have another plan.