The City of San Diego’s recent mayoral election has statewide implications, particularly for the Republican Party. A closer look at the election finds some key lessons to be learned for future GOP candidates for non-partisan offices.
This Tuesday, San Diego elected City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer as the new mayor, replacing disgraced former mayor Bob Filner, who resigned last August. In a city where Democratic voters hold a 90,000 voter registration advantage over Republicans, Faulconer won by a 54.5%-45.5% margin (with 36,000 provisional ballots still to be counted). With limited power in the state legislature, and no elected statewide positions, the California GOP may have found a new standard bearer in Faulconer, who stands as the only Republican big city mayor in America.
How do we account for this victory? The unique circumstances of a special runoff election in early February resulted in a low voter turnout (43%), which generally favors Republican candidates. Experience also matters; Faulconer was the older, polished, two-term Councilmember compared to his opponent, the younger, single-term Councilman David Alvarez. Still, a number of important factors led to Faulconer winning on Election Day, three of which are relevant to Republicans seeking office in non-partisan positions.
Style and Approach Matter
While both candidates promised a bipartisan approach to leadership at City Hall, their time on the campaign trail was spent differently. Alvarez spent most of his time in the election trying to fire up the sizeable Democratic electorate to increase voter turnout. A steady stream of elected Democratic officials came to town, touting their endorsed candidate at public rallies and press events. In a late breaking, dramatic fashion, it was announced over the weekend before Election Day that President Obama endorsed Alvarez for mayor. Meanwhile, Faulconer stuck closely to a theme of bipartisanship and stayed on message, rarely discussing his party registration. Continuous events were held to reinforce the theme of bipartisanship, including press conferences with prominent endorsers from the community. Through repetition, voters (and the media) saw a contrast in style, and drew conclusions from it.
Work with the Political Gameboard You Have, Not the One You Want
Every place has a unique political DNA that requires study & understanding. Alvarez spent very little time winning over the high-propensity voters that were likely to show up (moderate, Caucasian, older, homeowners, suburbanites), and focused instead on trying to turn out voters that won’t (Latinos, young voters, renters, urban voters). He also used rhetoric and campaign themes that weren’t familiar to San Diego voters. It requires a truly unique candidate, someone who is charismatic, articulate, telegenic, to have a transformative effect on an election. Alvarez also spent significant resources and energy on a massive Get Out The Vote program for Election Day, but the prior November 2013 mayoral primary election found that Democratic voters voted the same way Republicans did: 71% absentee, 29% polls. Rather than try to change the electorate, work early to get your message out to the voters that will cast ballots.
Overall, 60% of Republican absentee ballots were mailed back to the Registrar of Voters, compared to only 47% of Democratic absentee ballots. This was largely due to the fact that the San Diego Republican Party has one of the country’s most effective absentee voter programs. The mail pieces sent from the party to absentee voters were effective, eye-catching, and stuck out of the mailbox in odd sizes. Using the same consultant for mail, the pieces all have the same professional look and feel. Continuity in themes, images and fonts helps build familiarity with voters. As Election Day approached, the mailers used techniques to heighten awareness to the election date, such as printing the name of the voter in bold letters with yellow highlighting, and changing color schemes to more alarming tones of red, yellow and black. In comparison, Democratic and independent expenditure mailers, at least those viewed by this author, ranged from cluttered, confusing and even amateurish. Mail matters; in the November 2013 mayoral primary election, 71% of votes cast were absentee. The permanent absentee voter program will only continue to grow in popularity throughout the state.
Vince Vasquez is the Senior Policy Analyst at the National University System Institute for Policy Research, a think-tank based in San Diego. Vince analyzes economic, demographic and political trends in San Diego County.