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James V. Lacy

Los Angeles voters defy poll and say “hell no” to higher taxes

The USC/LA Times poll released last Sunday, just two days before the Los Angeles city election on Tuesday, pretty much nailed the result of the Mayor’s election, but it surely missed the mark on voter support for the Proposition A sales tax hike on the same ballot.

In the Mayor’s race, the poll reported on voter attitudes which on election day reflected the exact same finishing order of the four top candidates for Mayor.  The poll pegged Garcetti as favored by 27% of likely voters, Gruel 25%, Kevin James at 15%, and Jan Perry at 14%.  In looking at the actual results of the election, the designers of the USC/LA Times poll have ample reason to congratulate themselves on their work: as stated the candidates all followed in the election in the same order as the poll a few days before; with respective percentage results of 33%, 29%, 16.36% and 15.93%, very closely tracking the poll.  Wow.  Got to respect that polling.

But just in the Mayor’s race.

Los Angeles voters completely defied the science of the same otherwise very accurate poll of L.A. voter sentiment, when they went to their voting booths last Tuesday, and defeated the Proposition A sales tax hike by a whooping 10+ percentage points, voting “No” by 55.17% to just 44.82% “Yes.”  Proposition A would have added a 1/2 cent to the sales tax collected in Los Angeles, raising the total tax to 9 1/2 cents, making it one of the highest sales taxes in the state, and also one of the highest in the country.  It would have raised $200 million a year for the city.  The proposition was a scheme devised by Herb Wesson, the City Council President, and the City Hall establishment, who made sure it had stellar support, with television advertising featuring Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, and support from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, as well as all the public employee unions and the Democratic Party, and plenty of direct-mail including almost all the slates.  The tax was touted as a way to raise revenue to help preserve police hires in the City, but the reality in the fine print is that the tax was not fully earmarked as such and could have been spent pretty much anyway the council dictated. The campaign in favor of the tax hike raised and spent more than $1,250,000 (lead by public employee unions like the SEIU, AFSCME, and AFL-CIO, all of which, along with Anschutz Entertainment that operates “L.A. Live” downtown, kicked in $100,000 each) to convince voters to vote “Yes.”

Opponents of Proposition A had no media campaign in opposition to the sales tax hike at all, even though all the major candidates for Mayor said they opposed it.  Opposition was essentially limited to the ballot arguments and four slate mailers opposing the measure, gratis, produced by Landslide Communications, (which we own).  Cal Voter Guide also sent a slate mailing out opposing Prop. A.  But that was about it for the opposition campaign.

In the USC-LA Times Poll, Proposition A was determined to have support of 53% of voters with 41% opposed and 4% undecided.  The poll announced it had a 4.4% margin of error, but that margin would have at worst put voter support/opposition for the tax at 50/50.  The voter result is a significant (though not wholly outrageous) deviation from the USC/LA Times poll of just a few days before and the poll really missed on this one.

So, what happened?  How could the poll by so “right on” for the Mayor’s race and statistically significantly outside the predictors for the tax measure?  How could a huge campaign in favor of the measure fail in the face of essentially no organized campaign in opposition.

Well, poll apologetics might include some discussion of the actual “turn out” model.  The recent Los Angeles election saw one of the lower turn-outs of voters in L.A. history.  The turn-out, at 16% was not the lowest, but it was both quite low, and lower than the election four years ago.  In low turn-out elections, the conventional wisdom is that older and more conservative voters will represent a higher percentage of the total votes cast.  Retired and more conservative voters, on budgets, who might be more sensitive to a sales tax hike, could have been under-represented in the USC-LA Times poll turn-out model.  If they were, this might be one explanation for why the poll missed the mark.  This of course does not explain why the Mayor picks were on-track, other than perhaps this voting group wasn’t a significant influence on the Mayor race one way or another, but mattered on the sales tax hike.

Another reason may rest in the failure of the poll to fully account for how a voter confronts a down-ballot, low information voting decision in the voting booth when he or she actually sees the printed words “sales tax” and must think to make a mark “Yes” or “No” next to those words.  Seeing those words and understanding they will have a personal affect might cause whatever grainy images remembered of Charlie Beck’s “ask” on TV to melt a bit.  It is one thing to answer questions in a poll about whether government funding should be raised to help hire police.  It is quite another consideration in the voting booth, in the midst of high local unemployment during a long recession in a heavily taxed state, where voters are striving hard to make ends meet, where both the Federal and state governments have within months taken larger tax bites from taxpayers, and where the President continues to tell the national media and clue the same voters that he still needs even more taxes.  To ask voters to do the same yet again for yet another government agency might be just too much.    In my view, this was the most plausible reason that compelled voters to reject Proposition A.  Californians are simply over-taxed.  While some localities were able to sneak in tax increases in California last November, those increases preceded the passage of the Proposition 30 statewide tax increase and the Federal “fiscal cliff” increases that were enacted at the end of this year.  I think all these new taxes helped some voters to intuitively determine “enough is enough” when they looked at Proposition A in the voting booth, and I suspect it was not just retirees who contributed to the stomp on that measure.