Survey USA has released polling on the state of the San Diego’s mayor race, immediately igniting twitter with off-the-cuff analysis and speculation. The usual caveats apply here— first, it’s just one poll, and we’re well over a year away from anyone voting. Second, SUSA was particularly strong last cycle according to Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight, even if they got to the right answer via a conservative path. While these numbers don’t necessarily mean much relative to the final outcome, they do mean quite a bit in terms of setting the stage and establishing the sort of campaigns that the contenders and pretenders will run. So we’re obliged to offer some initial quick-and-dirty reactions.
First and foremost, everyone will jump on the Donna Frye numbers. She is—by far—the best-known candidate in the polled field, and she polls strongly with a 44/33 approval number. The path for Frye, presumably, is the straightest line here: cobble together an extra 6% from the neutral and no-opinion field. But there’s no reason to think Frye is interested in yet another run for mayor, and it’s clear when looking at the numbers for everyone else in the poll that her high numbers are a function of having twice run in the past. That’s not an irrelevant advantage by any means, but it does indicate that there’s room for one or several other candidates to quickly make up ground simply via solid funding and a competent campaign. And while we have boundless affection for what Donna Frye has accomplished, we’d be remiss not to note that she failed to effectively hand over her City Council seat or successfully bolster progressive ballot initiatives at the citywide level.
Working down the name-recognition ladder, it’s clear that Bob Filner has spent enough time in Congress to boost his profile. That said, it’s resulted in a clean split, 30/29 on approval. He carries only a 45% approval among Democrats, so he’s got room for improvement in a Dem-majority city, but initial indications are that there’s plenty here that may prove polarizing. The path certainly exists, but it depends on the match-up, the campaign, and the outside influence brought to bear. In particular, we can expect a significant boost from President Obama and a (sorry left-wing and GOP) likely Senate blowout by Dianne Feinstein.
On the other side of the aisle, the numbers are remarkably similar at the top lines. Carl DeMaio is at 27/17. Bonnie Dumanis, 31/16. Kevin Faulconer clocks in at 20/14 and Nathan Fletcher at 20/12.
It means that, to varying degrees, all of the GOP contenders have a receptive base and plenty of room to define themselves if they get the money and decent strategy to roll themselves out citywide. The tricky part is trying to parse where each candidate has room to maneuver and room to worry.
Carl DeMaio gets an early boost from strong numbers among Democrats who have an opinion, performing better there than he does with Independents. Speculation suggests that the open-government mantle has passed (temporarily) to an awkward place, and that DeMaio benefits from being the only person actively engaging the community and vocally leading on budget issues. What remains to be seen is how Democrats and Independents migrate if/when DeMaio’s budget plans get wider play. DeMaio has been essentially running for mayor since he won his City Council seat, so the head start is relevant. It remains to be seen whether there’s a top-out for DeMaio’s grassroots push that will reveal itself as other candidates get more deeply engaged in the campaign process.
Dumanis is the late-breaking (such as is possible this far out) contender, registering the strongest numbers. At first glance, this would be the biggest challenge for a Democrat, as Dumanis gets her strongest support from self-described liberals (36/10). However, that breakdown suggests that she may have approval numbers that wouldn’t translate into votes if she were squaring off against a legitimate Democratic candidate. Dumanis also runs as big a risk as any of the GOP contenders included in the poll of facing a far-right spoiler campaign that ultimately erodes her standing in a November election where Barack Obama and Dianne Feinstein are likely to win California in blowouts.
By contrast, Kevin Faulconer seems to have a more clearly defined constituency. Self-described liberals don’t like him at all, but he does well with conservatives and moderates. That jibes with his milquetoast run to the center-right, courting the downtown development community but not substantively leading on citywide issues or solutions. Knee-jerk speculation is that the uphill climb for Faulconer would be to sell himself outside of his existing base—or at least introduce himself. The question is, how long can he wait to do so before he’s just part of the chorus line?
Nathan Fletcher is the least known of all, which is both his greatest asset and greatest weakness. It’s telling that his weakest performance is among older voters, moderates and independents. These tend to be the groups most likely to question inexperience, Fletcher’s connections with Sacramento’s ruthless recent budgets and the fact that he worked for disgraced San Diego Congressman Duke Cunningham. If these initial numbers are accurate, Fletcher starts with the most ground to make up in terms of introducing himself to voters, and there’ll be plenty of opponents willing to help cement that definition. While he’s the presumed darling of the down-the-middle, don’t-make-waves San Diego business conservatives, nothing here suggests he has an open path to a win.
And as a brief final note, give up on Steve Francis as anything but a spoiler. Despite all his efforts in previous elections, he registered a 13/20. If you can’t come up with more opinions after multiple citywide runs, and you can’t come close to breaking even among the few who do know you, you can barely even aspire to be a spoiler.