Posted by rflacks on:
It was a bizarre election campaign here in Santa Barbara but the results are provocative, and give much food for thought about Santa Barbara's future and some lessons that are pertinent to the national scene too.
The strange turns included the dropping out of two strong candidates--Iya Falcone for mayor, and Olivia Uribe for council-because of self-inflicted mistakes. Had either remained in the race, the results might well have been quite different. Most bizarre, of course, was the role of Randall Van Wolfswinkel, who spent $700,000 trying to pass measure B and elect a mostly Republican slate. What motivated him remains mysterious (and I hope Nick Welsh and other journalists keep trying to figure it all out). The result of his investment was zero, for reasons I'll get into below.
Measure B was solidly defeated. The measure got a bit less than the 11,000 signatures that put it on the ballot. That signature drive was supposed to prove that there was a groundswell of grassroots feeling aimed at protecting the ‘small town character' of Santa Barbara against the depredations of developers. As I've suggested before, the ‘no change' sentiment seems largely expressed by upper middle class senior citizens. Many of these are Republicans, and I think local GOPers have cleverly appealed to this sentiment and developed some effective wedge issues that have enabled them to have some electoral success. I doubt very much that Francisco, Self and Hotchkiss cared at all about measure B (especially since ideologically they're opposed to government controls over private development). It was rather laughable that the largest developer effort to affect a local election in the history of Santa Barbara (i.e. Van W's "preserve Santa Barbara') was defended by some leaders of the B campaign as a sincere attempt to oppose developer interests.
We don't yet have data to do a detailed analysis of the measure B vote. But the precinct vote breakdown shows that B passed in most of the precincts where turnout was over 50%, and was strongly defeated in lower turnout precincts. We know that older, more affluent and more Republican folks are more likely to vote in local elections. So we can read the turnout by precinct pattern as a good indicator of underlying demographics: younger, less affluent, minority and Democratic voters tended to oppose it.
An important dimension of this election was the effort by the local Democratic Party and PUEBLO to get out the vote of their constituencies. The mail ballot may well have helped that effort, but it was remarkable that more than 4000 people turned in ballots at collection stations on election day, B was losing by a narrow margin before those last 4000 votes were tallied on Tuesday night; the surge voters were overwhelmingly against it.
The No on B campaign was remarkably effective from the beginning. Measure B superficially appealed to the longstanding anti-growth, anti-development consensus in our town, so the campaign against it had to educate folks about the ways that strict height limits would work against housing affordability, control of sprawl and sustainability. The No on B activists included a number of creative minds (including my wife Mickey), who marshaled arguments and means of delivering them that seemed to really affect community awareness and framing of the issue. It certainly helped that Cottage Hospital leaders weighed in against the measure, since it seemed to require them to abandon their plans for future hospital development. And the stance taken by PUEBLO and the local Democratic Party was a crucial ingredient in educating and mobilizing the opposition. The strong vote for Helene Schneider, Grant House and Bendy White was certainly enabled by the GOTV efforts led by these two organizations.
On the other hand, this was also a successful election for the small right-wing of our city. For the first time in years, we have a conservative bloc on city council. Self and Hotchkiss got a bit under 7000 votes each. They got these because the Republican base here has always been pretty disciplined, turning out to vote and to vote in a fairly unified way. It's pretty likely that many Self-Hotchkiss voters bullet voted for these two. If Randall had not spent a nickel, I think their vote total would have been pretty much the same.
There are two reasons that Self and Hotchkiss were able to get elected. First, the progressive side was divided in its endorsements for the ‘third' council slot. Diane Channing and David Pritchett were each endorsed by a number of groups (but PUEBLO endorsed only Grant House). Had only one of these two been running that individual would have surpassed the Republican bloc vote (though it is likely that Self or Hotchkiss might have made into the ‘fourth' slot). So the perennial issue for Santa Barbara progressives: can't we develop a process that would allow for unity rather than division at election time?
Equally pressing and perennial is the question of turnout. Republicans turnout was 10% higher than the Democratic vote. The precincts with the highest turnout went for B and trended toward Francisco and co, while low turnout precincts were strongly voting in the ‘Democratic' direction. There was an excellent GOTV effort in those precincts and so we had a final turnout considerably higher than any purely local city election in memory. How to reach and mobilize thousands of renters, young voters, minority voters-how to connect with their needs and concerns-is a crucial question for the future of the city.
Incidentally, this is the same sort of question the Democrats have to face nationally. Republican spinsters (enabled by the national media) are claiming that the results of Tuesday's elections were a severe setback for Obama because moderate Independents are resisting his left-wing policies. This line is intended to split the congressional Democrats as they come to vote on health-care and climate change reform. But the election data say quite the opposite: the real problem for the Democrats is the fact that the voters with the greatest enthusiasm for progressive change stayed home. In the face of 10% unemployment (and unemployment much greater among the young, the black and Latino and women voters) Obama and the congressional Democrats must read the returns as a demand for real action that restores hope to those hardest hit. It would be great if masses of folks took to the streets to demand such action. But staying at home is also a kind of ‘strike' against a politics controlled by a corporate rather than a people's agenda.
Our local election provided another lesson useful for thinking about national electoral politics: money talks but not so much. One of the persistent myths taken for granted by progressives is that elections are determined by how much money the contenders have available. So Randall Van Wolfswinkel's investment failed to help measure B (and probably hurt it), failed to elect Francisco. Note how Mike Bloomberg's incredible investment of $100 million in NY did not provide him a decisive victory (even though he's acknowledged as an effective mayor, and even though his opponent was a virtual nonentity), and how Corzine in New Jersey was defeated despite tens of millions of his own money. In this election here and nationally, big money seemed to backfire. Of course, there is a pretty high dollar threshold that a candidate needs in order to be a contender-and this is largely due to the unfortunate dependence on paid TV advertising for effective campaigning, and on the alleged wisdom of professional campaign consultants. Public financing of elections would create a very different playing field, no doubt. But I think the important strategic questions for the electoral left aren't about money but about bringing out the people power latent in our numbers.
There's a lot to be said about what the death of measure B might mean for the future of Santa Barbara...and I'll talk about this next time. Meanwhile...your thoughts on any of the above?