A voter’s eye view of the Los Angeles election
This year, for the first time, the nonpartisan Pat Brown Institute at CSU Los Angeles went into the polling field. As poll director, I wanted our poll to illuminate broader trends in the local electorate, and to conduct it we retained Susan Pinkus, who for many years ran the Los Angeles Times’ polls. Under Pinkus’ direction, calls were made to 1,705 adults between April 29 and May 7; of those, 904 were registered voters and 674 were determined to be likely voters.
We released our poll results in two stages, on May 10 and May 13. The first revealed that the mayor’s race between Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti has become a dead heat, with Greuel ahead by one point among likely voters but within the margin of error of 4 points. (A second poll by Survey USA for KABC TV showed an actual tie.) Perhaps the tight race will generate the kind of excitement that has been missing in the campaign thus far. Our second set of results showed Dennis Zine and Mike Feuer hold clear leads for controller and city attorney, respectively.
In this, as in so many elections, we have focused so much on the candidates that we may have forgotten that elections are really about the voters — how various groups’ representation has changed over time and what they want to happen in their city.
Of the likely voters in the PBI poll, 42 percent were white, 12 percent were African American, 29 percent were Latino, and nine percent were Asian American. Consider that when Richard Riordan defeated Mike Woo in 1993, whites cast 72 percent of all votes, and Latinos cast only eight percent. Riordan’s election was the last time that a Republican had a real chance for the city’s top job, when Republican voters cast more than 30 percent of the votes. In the PBI sample, only 13 percent of likely voters identified as Republican. This is a Democratic town, with 56 percent of the likely voters calling themselves Democrats. (An estimated 6 percent of the city, and a larger share of its voters, are Jewish, who are disproportionately Democratic, but their numbers were too small in the PBI poll for analysis.)
We often hear negative things about the city and about the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). We should also wonder how people feel in their own neighborhoods, because that’s their day-to-day experience. Only 40 percent of voters polled like the direction of the city, and 22 percent approve of the LAUSD, but within this sprawling metropolis, residents are more pleased with their own neighborhoods and even their local schools, than with the “city” and the “school district.” Voters said their own local schools are in good shape (37 percent favorable), just as they thought their neighborhoods are doing well (52 percent. This has probably been true in the past, but we have tended not to ask.
As Latinos’ numbers and influence continue to rise, they are feeling optimistic. Nearly half (44 percent) think the city is going in the right direction, compared to only 29 percent of African-Americans, who have seen their hard-earned political gains jeopardized by a declining population share. Latinos think that Antonio Villaraigosa has done a good job as mayor, giving him a 62 percent approval rating, compared to his overall 50 percent approval. Latinos were much more likely to give the beleaguered LAUSD positive ratings than either whites or African-Americans. Latinos favor giving the city’s mayor greater authority over the school district to a significantly greater degree than either whites or African-Americans. As a group on their way up, Latinos can see a better future in front of them, and their attitudes toward public institutions are starting to reflect that optimism.
Latinos prefer Eric Garcetti over Wendy Greuel (48-36 percent), Dennis Zine over Ron Galperin for controller (29-18 percent), and Mike Feuer over Carmen Trutanich for city attorney (31-23 percent).
Whites are not as optimistic as Latinos about the direction of the city, but among all groups, whites are the most satisfied with how things are going in their neighborhoods (65 percent, compared to 31 percent for African-Americans and 42 percent for Latinos). White voters support Greuel (53-42 percent), Zine (30-21 percent), and Feuer (39-23 percent). African-Americans, whose numbers in the sample are too low for full analysis, favor Greuel by a 2-1 margin, and also Zine and Trutanich.
The sleeper for Greuel is a growing gender gap, with women supporting her by 13 points and men backing Garcetti by the same margin. A surge of women voters or a high black turnout might ensure victory for Greuel, just as a mobilization of Latino voters, who tend to be late deciders, would do it for Garcetti.
Among registered voters (numbering 904 in the PBI sample), crime, the city budget, and education emerged as what people worry about most. Voters also expressed concern about traffic, the economy, streets, and jobs — essentially the bread-and-butter issues of everyday life in a big city.
Yet not all groups have the same concerns. Whites were more likely to list traffic than either African-Americans or Latinos, who were worried more about crime than whites. And whites and African-Americans were more concerned than Latinos about the city budget.
What guidance does this poll hold for the next mayor?
With all the talk about pensions and other budget issues at city hall, the next mayor will have to spend much time and political capital on quality-of-life issues that will require hard choices among budget priorities.
The mayor can build on voter optimism about neighborhoods and local schools while trying to build confidence in the city government and in the school district. Voters will want to see results in their daily lives, not just glossy programs that are advertised to have no costs or side-effects, only benefits.
Both candidates have been working hard to convince the electorate that no hard choices will have to be made, that it’s possible to have a fully staffed police force, nice parks, easy-to-navigate streets and lots of new jobs. Naturally, this is not going to be true starting July 1, when the mayor takes office. To govern is to choose.
With two Democrats in the runoff, the voters will not be able to give an ideological direction to the new mayor. The voters will really be selecting the better leader, the person most likely to negotiate and bargain on the city’s behalf, to make the right choices among competing priorities.
Voters won’t tell the mayor whether more money should go to parks or to keep the police force at 10,000 officers, whether to support a jobs-producing development or stop it in order to reduce traffic congestion. Nor will voters tell the mayor how to deal with the powerful forces that dominate city hall. They may be ambivalent about giving the mayor greater authority over the school district, but they certainly will expect schools to improve under the next mayor.
Once elected, the new mayor will hopefully trust the voters enough to make plain that choices must be made, that there is no free lunch when it comes to municipal services, that talking alone won’t make a powerful and effective mayor, and to engage the public in the process of setting priorities. Our poll does not say whether voters will welcome that honesty. But what our poll does show is that the voters will look to their own neighborhoods and their own local schools to see if what the mayor is doing works for them.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs and Director of the PBI Poll at California State University, Los Angeles. Full reports on the PBI Poll on the Los Angeles City Elections can be found at www.patbrowninstitute.org .