Two months ago I took on some of the most persistent failures of conventional wisdom in San Diego politics, including that the city’s voters lean to the right. At the time, I pointed out that the city of San Diego is not only willing to elect Democrats, it voted for every possible Democrat in the November 2010 election by almost the exact same margin as the state overall. Now, California has become a reliably Democratic state over the last ten or twenty years, so it’s perhaps worth going back over a sample size a bit larger than last November.
For a brief statistical explanation, the reason for comparing to the state level is to allow for various ‘wave’ elections — Obama swung things left in 2008, there was a bit of a Republican swing in 2010, but these factors should impact the city of San Diego in roughly the same proportion as the state overall, so if there’s a difference at the local level, it would appear relative to the state level. Looking at the rest of the general elections of the last decade though simply reinforces the evidence from last fall: In these regularly scheduled November elections, the city of San Diego votes like the state overall, even leaning a bit more to the left. And while there are Republicans who have won citywide in these elections when actually running against a Democrat, the examples are few and far between.
November 2008: Slow year for the whole city to vote on anything. There were no statewide offices being contested, and Mayor Sanders had won his reelection in June with barely a Democrat on the ballot, much less campaigning. Nevertheless, Barack Obama won the city 62/36 over McCain while carrying the state 61/37. The only citywide race was the nonpartisan city attorney race, where Republican Jan Goldsmith waxed Mike Aguirre 59/40. The two are rather at odds with each other in terms of partisanship, which suggests that one is outside of normal patterns.
November 2006: Big year with all statewide offices being contested. Arnold Schwarzenegger cruised statewide to a 56/39 reelection while improving in San Diego to 66/30. Meanwhile, Dianne Feinstein was reelected by a 58/38 in SD and 59/35 statewide. John Garamendi was elected Lieutenant Governor by a 49/45 margin in the city and statewide. Debra Bowen was elected 48.5/44.5 in SD, 48/45 statewide. John Chiang took Controller with a wide margin of 56/37 in SD, 51/40 statewide. Bill Lockyer won Treasurer 55/37 in SD vs 54/37. Jerry Brown was elected Attorney General by 57/37 in SD, 56/38 statewide. Republican Steve Poizner broke up the run by becoming Insurance Commissioner by a 51/39 margin statewide, but only carried San Diego 49/41. Which means that in three cycles, the only Republicans who have won the city in general election are Jan Goldsmith over Mike Aguirre, Schwarzenegger over Phil Angelides, and Steve Poizner losing a third of his margin over Cruz Bustamante.
November 2004: Another relatively quiet year, but John Kerry won the city 55/44 while carrying the state of California 54/44. Meanwhile, Mike Aguirre was elected City Attorney in a razor-thin 50/49 win and Donna Frye as a write-in candidate received more than a third of all votes cast for mayor.
November 2002: A clean sweep for Democrats at the state level is almost entirely matched in San Diego. Gray Davis, Cruz Bustamante, Kevin Shelley, Phil Angelides, Steve Westly, and Bill Lockyer are all elected both statewide and in the city of San Diego. Only Republican Gary Mendoza manages to slip ahead in San Diego while losing statewide, doing so in a weirdly fractured race that left him the leader in San Diego with 41.8% of the vote.
Going back even further, let’s just look at the presidential impact. The last time that San Diego had a Democrat for mayor on the same ballot as a Democrat for President was 1992. That was the year that Bill Clinton won California with 46% of the vote and Democratic mayoral candidate Peter Navarro got 48% in his loss — outperforming Clinton. Before 1992, California was a reliable Republican state, going Republican six consecutive times and nine out of ten. Since then, it has gone Democratic every time, and there’s never been a Democratic mayoral candidate on the ballot to see what that means.
To review, we have 26 D vs R citywide general election match-ups going back to 2002. Republicans have won four, and only reached 50% twice. Those races run the gamut of incumbents to open seats, strong to weak campaigns, liberals to moderates to conservatives, the famous and the unknown. Every other citywide race has been without a Democrat contesting, resolved in a summer primary where turnout is much different, or a special election where all bets are off. Which leaves us a choice: We can look at those four and see them as exceptions, or we can look at those 22 and see them all as exceptions.
There’s no way to look at this and say that simple party affiliation will determine who wins the mayoral race next year. There are myriad other factors that come into play every time out of the gate. But that’s exactly the point. Consistent voter behavior shows is that in general elections, San Diego votes for Democrats if given the chance, but we simply have no idea what that means for a known Democrat running for mayor in a presidential year. It’s exciting, but it should also throw cold water on any prognosticators — there’s absolutely no historical precedence for what we’re heading into next year. Anything could happen.
Bob Filner, for example, faces a number of potentially debilitating challenges. For one, he’s significantly handicapped by the lack of existing infrastructure. It isn’t supposed to be the candidate’s job to party build, but Filner is effectively stuck with that job as well since that infrastructure hasn’t been built before now. He could prove ‘too liberal’ or maybe his personality won’t resonate. But there’s no actual electoral evidence to show that San Diego won’t vote for a strong Democrat running on core Democratic principles — instead it’s exactly the opposite.
Remember reality, and don’t believe the hype.