When the Center for the Study of Los Angeles sent out undergrads to conduct exit polling of voters on Nov. 6, the center had them tack on questions about next year's Los Angeles mayor's race. Good intentions. Why not ask? But of the voters who talked to the pollsters, more than two-thirds of them said they had not decided who to vote for in the mayoral election next March 5. End of story, right? Not so fast.
The center's director at Loyola Marymount University, Fernando Guerra, says the survey findings are useful as a snapshot of how the major candidates line up at essentially the start of the voter portion of the race. (Until now, the campaign has largely been a battle of lining up donors and endorsements.) The Times' Jim Newton did an op-ed column Monday grasping for some meaning in the poll's numbers. The LA Weekly's Gene Maddaus did a more skeptical web story, though he also drew on some selective findings he found interesting. At least three of the campaigns — those of Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel and Kevin James — immediately send out email skimming this or that complimentary stat off the top of the survey, while later dismissing the overall poll.
It's the talk of the race this week. I discuss the survey with Steve Chiotakis tonight on the weekly LA Observed segment on KCRW (6:44 p.m. on the air or online at KCRW.com.)
The one finding from the poll we can be confident about is that more than 2/3 of the voters who participated in the presidential election can't say yet which candidates for mayor they would vote for come March 5. That's because 1) they haven't heard any campaigning from the candidates yet, and 2) most Angeleno voters aren't going to vote in a race for mayor anyway. They never do, unless it's an extraordinarily emotional and compelling contest. This one isn't, and likely won't be, although it will seem like it is if you participate in Democratic clubs or happen to be a community activist immersed in city issues, such as a member of a neighborhood council. (Or a reporter.) Those are small population cohorts that, more than the Angeleno population at large, tend to see every election as the most crucial fork in the civic road ever. And tend to vote.
The survey seems to be of dicier value as a guide to where the candidates stand today with city of Los Angeles voters. For the record, just 11.9 percent of those asked said they preferred Garcetti, 10.6 percent said Greuel, 5.0 percent mentioned Perry and 2.9 percent said Kevin James. A whopping 67.2 percent said they don't know. If you re-set the scale to just the minority who have formed an opinion, then Garcetti gets 36.1 percent, Greuel 32.3 percent, Perry 15 percent and James 8.7 percent. It's hard to know what those numbers represent. They aren't offered as a percentage of the voters who are likely to take part in the mayoral election — the pollsters didn't inquire into who intends to vote. They are a snapshot of those who ventured out to the polls in a hot presidential race. Remember, the percentage of voters who actually showed up at the polls on Nov. 6, and thus could be exit-polled, was at an all-time low. Many voted by mail. They also were not told anything about the candidates. It all makes analysis of small differences, such as those the survey found between Garcetti and Gruel, seem like a stretch, even if statistically within the survey's margin of error (plus or minus 2.9 points.)
As the day went on, Maddaus updated his morning story with some strong pooh-poohing by the political pros involved in the race. "This is at best a poorly executed exit poll with extremely flawed methodology," said Eric Hacopian, Perry's consultant. "The results of an exit poll of November voters, which does not screen for voter history can not be taken seriously by any one who has ever done a poll or run a campaign." Greuel's consultant, John Shallman, told Maddaus "I hope Eric believes the poll. We like running against misinformed opponents." Even Team Garcetti played down the nearly four-point lead offered to their guy, calling the race a "dead heat."
Guerra acknowledges that the poll only tries to say where things stood on Nov. 6 and he defends the poll's validity. He says the large sample (3,749 respondents, including 1,152 who had an opinion on the mayoral candidates) lends accuracy — the survey questionnaires nailed the actual vote percentage that President Obama got on ballots cast at the polls, according to Guerra. Those who went to the polls, and took the time to talk to a pollster, and who already have an opinion on the candidates four months ahead of the election, are probably core voters come March 5, he argues.
The clearest value of the mayoral race findings, Guerra says, is to confirm the relative positioning of candidates into tiers, based on where they stood with voters on Nov. 6. Garcetti and Greuel group together at the top, Perry falls clearly behind them, and James falls clearly behind her. That all agrees with previous polls and the instincts of the campaigns' pros. Your guess is as good as theirs as to the exact share of the vote any of them can expect.
It all could change as the campaigns play out, of course.
"It is my opinion that this is a pretty good prediction of where the candidates are," Guerra told me, cautioning that no one has an unsurmountable edge in any single demographic breakdown. "There is a path to victory for all [four] of the candidates.... My number one takeaway is that people are still undecided."
When the voters actually do decide on March 5, followed by a May runoff if necessary, Guerra says LMU students will be back in the field. That time, the exit poll will include voters who cast their ballots by mail.
* Meanwhile: Garcetti tonight won the endorsement of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley. That has to feel good; Greuel had been talking up her support in the San Fernando Valley, which she used to represent on the City Council.