The Mayoral Primary Results Tell Us Absolutely Nothing About Who Will Be the Next Mayor of Los Angeles

Cityside Column: Karen Bass and Rick Caruso can both find dark clouds and silver linings in the mischievous returns

The debate as to whether or not a higher power guides life continues, but one thing is clear after the results of Tuesday’s Los Angeles mayoral primary: Loki, the God of Mischief, has seized control of the electoral process.

How else to explain results, which came after record spending and rhetoric, that tell us absolutely nothing about what will happen in the November runoff? Anyone who claims that they can look at voter data and geographic patterns, interpret the results and definitively state who will be the next mayor of Los Angeles, is either lying, or is actually Loki in disguise.

According to returns released early Wednesday morning by the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, mall master Rick Caruso leads with 133,059 votes, or 42.14 percent. This compares with U.S. Rep. Karen Bass pulling 116,688 votes, or 36.95 percent. Councilmember Kevin de León finished with a disappointing-for-him 7.5 percent, and left-wing activist Gina Viola scored 5.2 percent. The remainder was divvied up by no-names and once-bigger names who dropped out of the race.

Caruso and Bass are headed to the runoff five months and a gazillion dollars from now, and both revved up adoring ride-or-die crowds at their respective parties on Tuesday evening. Yet there was ultimately just minor drama after the polls closed—in recent days it had become pretty clear that the pair were on a path to round two.

The numbers fall exactly where they need to be for spin-meisters to craft any sort of narrative and make it sound plausible. Is 42 percent enough for Caruso to harrumph that he finished first and this is proof that Los Angeles doesn’t want another career politician? Yes! Is 37 percent sufficient for Bass to state that she withstood a tidal wave of brutal attack ads from a rival’s campaign and the Los Angeles Police Protective League, and still finished within striking distance of a billionaire with unlimited resources? Yes!

You can go the other way, too. Can Team Bass point out that Caruso spent about $1 million per percentage point, assert that this is even a worse investment than Dogecoin, and claim Angelenos don’t want someone trying to buy the mayoralty? Absolutely! Can Caruso’s crew note that after Bass got 32 percent in a February poll, she rose only a few percentage points over several months, and thus has a high floor but a low ceiling? You bet!

The candidates’ numbers, and the approximately five-point margin between them, fall into the sweet spot that makes predicting what comes next utterly impossible. Caruso came out on top, and that is a victory for a guy who entered the race just four months ago. That said, this is no throw-da-bums-out mandate, as being eight points away from a majority is different than being, say, two points shy of surpassing 50 percent.

Similarly, Bass can maintain that in dark blue Los Angeles, many Democrats who voted for others will now shift to her instead of the former Republican; it’s hard to think, for example, that any Viola aficionado could vote for Caruso without having a heart attack. Still, one can’t point to any sort of rising wave that she can easily surf to victory, not when she is 13 points below win-now level.

Adding to the uncertainty is that neither candidate inspired the populace to hit the polls. The last time there was a competitive Los Angeles mayoral primary, in 2013, turnout in the city was 20.79 percent, and a total of 367,922 people cast a ballot for mayor.

As of Wednesday morning, just under 315,800 votes had been tabulated. That will increase as mail-in and provisional ballots are counted, but remember: This marks the first time that city elections were shifted from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, aligning with state and federal voting in the effort to boost that anemic turnout.

In other words, the dates changed, but despite the anticipation of more participation, Angelenos still collectively like voting about as much as they like root canals—the problem is not the dates, it’s us! At this moment no one has a crystal ball as to whether more people will opt to be part of the democratic process come November, especially when Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Alex Padilla will cruise to rubber-stamp wins.

When that day finally arrives, by the way, the world could be completely different. Five months is a lifetime in electoral politics. Remember, in the 2020 primary, Jackie Lacey finished with 48.65 percent, just under what she needed for a third term as L.A. County District Attorney, and George Gascón earned about 28 percent. A few months later, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and the landscape of the entire country flipped. Gascón got 53.5% in the runoff, sparking a whole different set of storylines.

This is not to say the same thing will happen between now and November in Los Angeles, but the point is, the unexpected can make everything we think we know moot.

The Caruso and Bass camps will dig into the data and turn the microscope on their own campaigns, and don’t be surprised if there are staff shake-ups, particularly on the Bass side—that tends to happen when you don’t finish first. New playbooks will be crafted. The money raised and spent between now and November could make the current Caruso and Bass squads look thrifty.

Round one is done. What is coming next will be fascinating to watch, and likely full of mischief.

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