New Mayoral Poll is Fascinating Snapshot of Calm Before the (Political) Storm

Cityside Column: Caruso surged with his TV ad blitz, but things may change as election day approaches

The Monday release of a new mayoral poll lit up political text chains across Los Angeles. Folks went gaga over the headline finding, which showed that mall developer Rick Caruso had tsunamied his way to a virtual dead heat with U.S. Rep. Karen Bass.

The poll, conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times, put Caruso as the favorite of 24 percent of respondents, with Bass the choice of 23 percent. Councilmember Kevin de León was a distant third, at 6 percent. City Attorney Mike Feuer, who has been in the race longer than anyone, fetched 2 percent, as did community activist Gina Viola. The 1 percent that went to Councilmember Joe Buscaino put him at the same level as Ramit Varma, Andrew Kim and Alex Gruenenfelder Smith.

As always, there is more at play than the headlines indicate, and no one should jump to conclusions or declare the race over. Here are some important takeaways.


The Mall Master’s Spend Worked as Planned

City Ethics Commission disclosures show that Caruso has loaned his campaign $10 million, and media reports say he has spent about $9 million on TV and web ads. Those did exactly what he hoped, shooting Caruso up from 8 percent in a poll two months ago. Opponents are screaming that he is trying to buy the election, but there’s no law against being really rich while running for office. By getting out before others, Caruso was first, second and third to make an impression on voters, many of whom have little knowledge of the race. This is a testament to what you can achieve with a lot of money and a clear strategy on how to spend it.


But This Isn’t as Impressive as It Appears

Team Caruso will crow about tripling their market share. But one could argue that after spending $9 million and facing no visible opposition, having 24 percent is under-performing. It’s hard to imagine anyone with a TV set or a web connection has not seen Caruso’s ads at least 41 times, and yet three out of four people are currently not leaning his way. Maybe the biggest surprise is not that he has 24 percent, but that he doesn’t have 35 percent.


The Real Leader Is Undecided

In polls two months ago, 40 percent of respondents were undecided. In the new iteration, 39 percent do not have a preference. This means two out of every five people have not figured out who they want to succeed Eric Garcetti. In a region where hundreds of thousands of people will cast a ballot, and two candidates will advance to the runoff, a huge number of votes are up in the air. Every campaign will be fighting for them.


Bass Going Backwards

In the first IGS/Times poll, Bass scored 32 percent of the vote, which put her comfortably in first place, and made the race look like a contest for who would face her in the runoff. Given that starting point, Monday’s poll makes it seem as if Bass has tripped down a flight of electoral stairs. No one ever wants to be going backwards, and this indicates she is losing ground.


That May Not Be a Big Deal

While Bass lost her commanding lead, the backslide occurred when she was not spending TV money. That should change in the near future. On Tuesday Bass brought out bigwigs including former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta as part of an effort to woo Latino voters—expect this to become a commercial airing on both English and Spanish-language stations. While Bass will not be able to match Caruso’s TV outlay, just getting on the airwaves should help her regain momentum. In addition to her own commercials, she will likely benefit from ads bought by an independent expenditure committee with ties to Jeffrey Katzenberg, J.J. Abrams and other Hollywood players. You never want to lose a lead, but Bass still appeals to a wide swath of liberal Angelenos. There is no reason to panic.


Other Polls Show Different Results

Never take any single poll as definitive. While some observers instantly declared that this is now a two-person contest, a March poll from Loyola Marymount University had 16 percent of respondents choosing Bass, and 12 percent opting for de León. Yes, this was before the billionaire opened the financial floodgates, but that poll put Buscaino, Feuer and Caruso at 8 percent, 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Things probably have changed, but different polls conducted with different methodologies will produce different results. We need to see more data before anyone starts inscribing epitaphs.


Caruso Rose in a Shiny, Happy Environment, and That Will End

The Caruso that people saw in his ad blitz was precisely the sweater-wearing, avuncular figure that his campaign wanted people to see. Caruso will continue to buffet the airwaves, but in the coming months another vision of him will be presented to voters, and it won’t be so pretty. A fusillade of attack ads from rival candidates and independent expenditure groups will likely start hitting shortly before the mail-in ballots arrive. And just as Caruso tested his commercials for what resonates, the opponents will have ascertained what might turn voters against the mall master. Expect to see grainy ads targeting his wealth and him proclaiming at a recent debate, “I do have a nice boat.” Be prepared to be reminded 208,000 times that Caruso did not register as a Democrat until shortly before running, and that in the past he has donated sizable sums to Republicans. Opposition research teams have been preparing for this for months.


This Moment Means Nothing

The IGS/Times poll is definitely interesting, and could make it harder for some candidates to raise money, but ultimately, all it provides is a snapshot of this moment, just like two months ago we got a snapshot of Bass as the clear frontrunner.

Races move and mutate, and both the predicted and the unexpected can change things quickly. Plus, think how many polls have turned out to be completely wrong.

The breathless analysis is fun, and if it helps make people aware of the race, all the better. But ultimately what matters is not polls results in April, but the ballot count on June 7.

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