Ever met the president? Your US senator? Your congressman? Didn't think so.
What about your mayor or local officials? That's a lot more likely, and that's reassuring. Most of the policy that affects you in your day-to-day life is probably made on the state or municipal level. I've long advocated for a predominantly "local-out" view of politics, and I'd argue that mayoral elections are more important than most others, even on the federal level—possibly second only to the presidential.
If I'm right, we have an extremely important election coming up tomorrow, Tuesday, May 21, when the second-biggest city in the US will choose its first new mayor in eight years. Los Angeles actually had its initial mayoral election on March 5, but like many cities' elections, the race is thrown to a runoff if no candidate reaches 50%. Tuesday will be that runoff, pitting the top two candidates against one another for the big prize. The winner will have some large—and larger-than-life—shoes to fill, as the term-limited, outgoing mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, is a popular showman and potential candidate for higher office.
Although Los Angeles municipal elections are technically nonpartisan, both qualifying candidates ally themselves with the Democratic Party. Forty-two-year-old Eric Garcetti has served on the LA City Council since 2001 and as president of the council since 2006. The son of a former DA, he is an impressive mishmash of local ethnicities, including being both Mexican-American and Jewish.
Voters' alternative is Wendy Greuel, who has worn many hats in municipal government: city councilor, mayoral aide, and, currently, city controller (meaning she has won a citywide election before). She also has some serious connections—to Bill Clinton, in whose administration she worked, and to Hollywood, having worked as a studio executive at Dreamworks. She has the endorsements of both Clinton and Steven Spielberg. Greuel is white but would break barriers in other ways: she'd be Tinseltown's first female mayor.
In an environment where the two candidates agree on almost all the actual issues, the "issues" the race has been fought over have been rather superficial. Mainly, the campaign has been about who is supposedly in the pocket of which special interest—and, with the amount of independent spending the election has seen, this has resonated with voters. (I highly recommend this excellent graphic from the Los Angeles Times to see exactly which interest groups are spending for whom.) The knock against Garcetti has been that he is a little too close for comfort with big business—but by far the biggest shadow in the race has been cast by unions, who have spent overwhelmingly for Greuel. They have accounted for almost $6 million of the $7.7 million that has been raised by pro-Greuel super PACs. (In contrast, pro-Garcetti outside groups have raised only $2.7 million.) While this has led to a very effective line of attack against Greuel—that she has been bought by union interests—the outside spending has also kept her mayoral chances afloat. Although Garcetti's ($8.1 million) and Greuel's ($7.1 million) campaign committees have raised roughly comparable sums, Greuel's campaign has virtually run out of money here in the final stretch.
Other controversies have flowed out from these union connections. Greuel's union allies have taken fire for distributing flyers and circulating sound trucks in Hispanic neighborhoods that claim Greuel supports a $15 minimum wage. In reality, that wage proposal would only apply to hotel workers, but that was allegedly unclear the way the unions phrased it—perhaps, opponents claim, purposefully trying to mislead LA's Hispanic poor. However, it's not clear if this tactic has backfired on Greuel.
A final manufactured "issue" that is unlikely to make a difference is the still-extant division between Obama Democrats and Hillary Clinton Democrats. Mirroring an internal dynamic that has played itself out in other Democratic primaries, Garcetti supported the president early in the 2008 primaries, while Greuel was behind Clinton. Garcetti has trumpeted his friendship with Obama all campaign long, but with no endorsement and with Greuel obviously now an Obama supporter as well, too much has changed in five years to make that predictive in any way.
So who has come out on top of all this? In the March 5 primary that winnowed the field, Garcetti received 33.1% of the vote, 29.0% went to Greuel, and other, eliminated candidates amassed the remaining 37.9%. Since then, Garcetti has averaged a similar overall lead in polling, although for a period of about two weeks, the candidates were essentially tied (and may still be, depending on how you view a USC Price/LA Times poll released last Friday):
The narrative of the race—which, as we all know, can diverge from the data—has generally been that of a Garcetti campaign on cruise control while Greuel has stumbled. In late March, her bid was seen in chaos when four prominent members of her team left the campaign. More generally, Greuel is seen as the candidate of more dispassionate, moderate voters, while Garcetti is the "Obama-esque candidate" of young activists and Hispanics.
There's a lot more ambiguity when you actually get into it, however. A SurveyUSA poll found that all age groups were split right down the middle in their support. That poll also found that white and Hispanic voters tend to back Garcetti, with African-Americans and Asians behind Greuel—except another poll found that Garcetti's core groups were Asians and Latinos, while Greuel held leads with whites and blacks. That poll, in turn, found a strong gender gap in favor of Greuel—but the most recent poll found Garcetti ahead with the fairer sex. And finally, all three polls showed that it's actually Garcetti, by a comfortable margin, who is the preferred candidate of Angeleno Republicans.
How much do each of these groups matter in assembling a winning coalition, and where are they all concentrated? Let's take a tour of the city to get acquainted with its demographic layout. According to the American Community Survey, the City of Los Angeles is 48.1% Hispanic or Latino, 28.9% white, 11.4% Asian, and 9.6% black or African-American. As the home of almost four million people, Los Angeles has among the most complex political geography you can have in only 469 square miles, so we'll keep our characterizations on the simple side. (For intricate detail on each of LA's diverse neighborhoods, check out the Los Angeles Times's great "Mapping LA" project.)
Look at a map of the Los Angeles area and it's almost never clear what's actually within the City of Los Angeles. Often treated like their own cities, "suburbs" like Hollywood and Pacific Palisades are actually neighborhoods within the LA city limits. Meanwhile, places like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and a couple others that appear to be in the heart of Los Angeles are actually their own cities—enclaves completely surrounded by the main city. For greatest ease, let's start in Central LA, which is almost certainly where the big letters reading "LOS ANGELES" are on your aforementioned map. Slightly inland, Central LA is extremely diverse, both ethnically and socioeconomically, but it is also solidly blue. Comfortable members of the creative class make their homes in Hollywood Hills and Silver Lake (home of Eric Garcetti), voting Democrat in keeping with their artsiness; moneyed residents of Fairfax and Hancock Park vote Republican in keeping with their wealth. However, a vast majority of this district's vote is in the areas where poverty reigns without prejudice: between the skyscrapers of Downtown (a sizable black community), below the calligraphied signs of Koreatown (a pocket of Asian immigrants), and amid the smell of ethnic food in Westlake (home of many Latinos, who also make up pluralities in most of Central LA's other neighborhoods). Even glamorous Hollywood is home to a mostly poor population (though it is whiter than its aforementioned eastern neighbors). Like the rest of America's urban poor, these people are reliable Democratic votes. Furthermore, since many of them are Latino and are represented by him on the city council, they probably favor Garcetti—at least they did in March. However, this is one area where Greuel and her union supporters are hoping to make inroads; they are airing negative ads against Garcetti aimed at Latinos, and these poor neighborhoods are the ones where the minimum-wage promises—real or not—could change some minds.
West of Central LA, extending all the way to the Pacific, is what's known as the Westside. In a way, the Westside is an extension of Hancock Park or Silver Lake in its political tastes: well-educated, middle- and upper-class voters who tend to vote for Democrats. Intellectual Westwood, where UCLA is, is in this area; so is Venice Beach, which retains its hippie vibe. The Westside is also home to fiscally conservative but socially liberal voters in affluent communities like Pacific Palisades (usually tips Democrat) and Westchester (usually tips Republican). Garcetti, seen as a pro-business Democrat, is a great fit for this area. Look for him to build upon his already-respectable showing here in the primary.
East of Central LA, on the other hand, is the correspondingly named Eastside, along with Northeast LA to, um, the northeast. Uncorrespondingly, these areas are almost completely Latino—and thus all voted strongly for Garcetti in March. However, the area isn't entirely monolithic. Within this strip of land, from Eagle Rock in the north to Boyle Heights in the south, incomes tend to drop as you go south. This means the Eastside generally might be fertile ground for Greuel to steal away some Garcetti base votes as she's trying to do in Central LA. However, well-off Latinos in Northeast LA probably are lost causes for her—they can relate so strongly to Garcetti.
To the south is the historically African-American district of South Los Angeles. Much of what's left of LA's black population still resides here, especially in western neighborhoods like Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw and Hyde Park, but overall this is another heavily Hispanic area. More relevantly, it is among the most dangerous, poorest, least educated urban areas in the nation—famous to the rest of us as South Central LA (home of the Watts district). Another Democratic stronghold, it's unclear which Democrat it will favor on Tuesday; in March, it sided decisively with its city councilor, Jan Perry, who finished fourth overall. Perry endorsed Garcetti after losing, and certainly it makes sense that the Hispanic vote here will go to him. However, polls agree that African-Americans are in Greuel's corner this time around, and blacks in this area have shown a reluctance to vote for Hispanic candidates in past mayoral elections. South LA should be competitive, and Greuel's people will certainly be looking at their margins here on election night—as should you.
From South LA, a thin strip of land that is still the City of Los Angeles slithers south past Torrance and Compton, all the way to the ocean, where it widens and becomes the Harbor district. This near-exclave is home to the middle class of all races, and it is also more politically diverse than the neighborhoods we've covered so far. For instance, the plurality-Hispanic Wilmington neighborhood is mostly Democratic, but the seaside San Pedro actually boasts a respectable Republican population. This area will probably be a wash; perhaps a slight Garcetti advantage won't matter because the vote share here is the lowest of the six regions we're touring today.
Thus far, it's seemed like most neighborhoods have been all Garcetti, all the time—and that's certainly a testament to his frontrunner status. However, I've saved the biggest region for last. The San Fernando Valley sprawls massively to the north of the Westside and northwest of Central LA; depending on turnout, it probably holds from 40% to 50% of the Los Angeles vote share. The Valley is the suburban purgatory that everyone pictures when they think of LA. With so many people, it also features quite a few political opinions, although on the whole it's the most conservative/moderate area in the city. Like most of suburbia, it is also solidly middle class, although you can certainly find both extremes here too. Garcetti did just OK in the Valley, running strongest in the chain of middle-class Hispanic communities on its east edge (e.g., Pacoima, Sun Valley, North Hollywood, as well as more westerly Reseda) that are the Valley's most consistent sources of Democratic votes. Then, on the Valley's western edge, you'll find LA's well-hidden Republican voters. Rich neighborhoods like Woodland Hills and Porter Ranch were where Republican Kevin James got his 16.3% of the vote in the March election; now those votes are up for grabs. Maybe, as the polls indicate, they'll switch allegiances to Garcetti—but maybe they'll also look to their neighbors for inspiration and go Greuel. Wendy's support was widespread across San Fernando, basically picking up any votes that didn't go James west of the 405 and any votes that didn't go Garcetti east of the 405. She won most of the precincts in the Valley in March and did particularly well near her home in Studio City. She should win them again tomorrow, but, in what is clearly a pretty politically balanced region, by how much? Like in South LA, she'll need to win convincingly here to make up for deficits elsewhere in the city.
So can Wendy Greuel convert enough inner-city votes? Who wins the conservative floaters, especially in the Valley? How decisive will the black vote be? The way you see each of these questions resolving says a lot about how you think the results will shake out tomorrow night.
Personally, I buy into a picture painted by the most recent USC Price/LA Times poll. That survey, which had Garcetti up by seven points, showed that Greuel was weak—even losing to Garcetti—on her supposed home turf in the Valley. The poll's sponsors postulated that Greuel's associations with unions were undermining her support among this relatively conservative bloc—certainly plausible, given how the campaign narrative has harped on those connections. It is certainly true that Greuel has no clear path to victory without the Valley, her most natural source of votes and one of two areas where turnout is likely to be higher. (To make matters worse, the other, the Westside, is solid Garcetti territory.) Fortunately for Greuel, I do see her clinching the black vote, which should make election night more competitive. But I don't think it will be enough for her to get more than 45% of the total vote.
To be clear, though, this election remains a tossup. In a sentence, the result hinges on whether that USC Price/LA Times poll is correct or instead an outlier from a trend that theretofore had the race tied. We'll find out tomorrow night—hopefully.