It was seven months ago—July 11, 2013—that Bob Filner first faced accusations of sexual harassment that led to his resignation as San Diego mayor. It felt like an eternity, but that six-week scandal pales in comparison to the time it's taken San Diego to pick a new one. That ends today, February 11, 2014, runoff day in the special election to choose the leader of the country's eighth-largest city—a post more powerful, in terms of citizens governed, than governor of Maine.
A November 19 preliminary round narrowed the field to two city councilmen: Democrat David Alvárez and Republican Kevin Faulconer. Alvárez, the race's labor-backed progressive, was a surprise qualifier, taking the Democratic "nomination" most expected to go to moderate Nathan Fletcher. As a result, Alvárez has had a harder time winning over the political middle, which is more important in San Diego than in most urban areas; Democrat Mike Aguirre has endorsed Faulconer, for instance. However, Alvárez is probably better positioned than Fletcher would have been to activate the city's grassroots on the left: organized labor and Latinos in particular. While Faulconer personally has outraised Alvárez personally, Democratic independent expenditures are sitting on much more cash.
Twenty years ago, that progressive coalition could never have won a municipal election in San Diego. Unlike virtually every other big city in the United States, San Diego is not a hotbed of liberalism and a bottomless pit of Democratic votes. Historically, it has actually been quite conservative—electing just one Democratic mayor between 1971 and 2012—thanks in large part to its military heritage. The Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy (including the famous Pacific Fleet), and thousands of defense contractors all have a presence in the city to this day. Good defense-related jobs have also created a naturally conservative upper crust in suburbs like La Jolla, which, unlike as in most major cities, are within the city limits (and thus eligible to vote for mayor).
But, like the rest of the country, the City of San Diego is changing. Conservatives are switching their registrations to decline-to-state or moving out to the exurbs, leading to a net loss of 50,000 Republicans since 2000. Meanwhile, minority voters are the city's fastest-growing cohort, pumping up Democratic registration numbers by 9,000 since 2000. The new San Diego has amassed more and more political clout as its numbers have swelled, throwing the city's longtime conservative identity into doubt. Instead, today San Diego is as swingy as Ohio or Washoe County—and it's brought the mayoral election to within the margin of error.
So who's going to win this nail-biter battle for San Diego's soul? It all comes down to which San Diego turns out. We'll be able to see this very starkly as the results start trickling in—because San Diego's cultural divide has sharp geographic boundaries to it. It's surprisingly simple; parts of the city north of Interstate 8—which bisects San Diego just north of downtown—are Republican strongholds, while precincts south of I-8 vote Democratic, as if flipping a lightswitch. A tool by Joe Yerardi at inewsource shows what that looked like in the November 19, 2013, preliminary election (image courtesy of the Liberator blog):
At a single glance even someone who has never been to San Diego (as I have not) can distinguish San Diego's urban precincts from its suburban ones. Physically separated by the interstate as well as the narrow San Diego River, the two San Diegos are equally far apart in their political preferences. A SurveyUSA poll, conducted January 20–23, found that voters who live south of Interstate 8 planned to vote for Alvárez by 20 points (56% to 36%). North of the freeway, voters preferred Faulconer by an even larger 61%-to-34% margin.
What accounts for the polarization? As already mentioned, northerly communes like La Jolla are full of affluent, moderate Republicans; across Interstate 8, though, it feels more like Cambridge or Berkeley. These are the walkable, trendy neighborhoods of the young: Normal Heights, with a median age of 31; North Park, named a premier American hipster haunt. But, mostly, it is about race. The turf north of I-8 is as white as the Padres' home uniforms, while the city's Latinos remain confined on the side closer to the Mexican border. Once San Diego's gentrified urban neighborhoods give way, a transformation takes hold:
That map is courtesy of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, whose national Racial Dot Map is quite simply the most important tool on the internet today. The map makes painfully obvious the where and why of the new San Diego. The city is home to hundreds of thousands of Latinos, overlapping almost exactly with its Democratic precincts south of Interstate 8. Once you get south of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway (Route 94), there is virtually no one white to be found. It is these precincts—once inconsequential and outshone—that in the new San Diego can be mobilized enough to drive David Alvárez to victory. The race's final SurveyUSA poll found Latinos breaking 61% to 32% for Alvárez; whites preferred Faulconer 58% to 39%. Sound familiar?
Unfortunately for Alvárez, it remains difficult to get these voters to the polls—or at least more difficult than it is for Faulconer to turn out his well-to-do base. The conventional wisdom is that Faulconer has done well among voters who cast their ballots early—as 170,000 people, or about half the expected turnout, already have. According to that most recent poll (which had the race overall at Faulconer +1), Faulconer was up by five points with early voters.
That means we'll have a good idea where the race stands pretty early on in the night. When the early-voting results are released (hopefully right at 8pm PT, when polls close), if Faulconer leads by at least four to eight points, he has built a formidable firewall against Alvárez's Election Day ground game, widely viewed as superior thanks to organized labor and Democratic community organizing. If not, we may well be in for another night like the preliminary election: one where Alvárez gets closer and closer as it gets later and later, until he comes from behind for the win on the very last vote dump.
More is on the line tonight than a simple mayoralty, however. This special election is set up pretty perfectly for the GOP. A Democratic incumbent was caught in a sex scandal, giving them a shot in a low-turnout special election at a seat that is usually only up for grabs during minority-turnout-heavy presidential years. It is a chance for the GOP to recreate something more like the off-year 2005 mayoral race, when 70% of voters lived north of Interstate 8, and less like the 2012 election, when just 57% of voters did.
Yet it's not looking like they'll get there. In this onetime conservative stronghold, the Republican candidate is still fighting for his life—suggesting it's less about the turnout conditions and more about simple, inexorable demographic change. If Faulconer cannot win under these conditions, Republicans may never win City Hall here again—and that, in turn, would signal the passing, once and for all, of the old San Diego.