On February 11 a mayoral election took place in my town, San Diego. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and on reflection, I believe it has considerable significance for the nation as a whole. It was a test of current Democratic electoral strategy, and of what may become Republican electoral strategy, if the Republicans are canny enough to adopt it.
The contestants were David Alvarez, Democrat, and Kevin Faulconer, Republican, both city councilmen. They were running to succeed disgraced Mayor Robert (“Bob”) Filner. Filner had been thrown out of office because of serious — though, in my view, overstated — charges of sexual misconduct. Other charges, even more serious, involved political bullying and bribery. These latter charges, unfortunately, have not been so closely considered, given the overwhelming emphasis that our society places on sex in all its forms. Both the sex charges and the political charges were important to Faulconer, who was a leader in the drive to oust Bob Filner. As for Alvarez, he was a Filner confidant who turned against him. In other, less kindly, and perhaps less objective words, Alvarez was a Filner flunky who stabbed him in the back.
Both Filner and Alvarez regarded themselves as Progressives. Both emphasized leftist political programs and played strongly to hardcore ethnic sentiments — Mexican-American and Mexican nationalist. Alvarez ran an ethnically oriented mayoral campaign with a borrow-and-spend platform to attract disciples of “growth,” “jobs,” “planning,” and share-the-wealth. Most importantly, however, he was the inheritor of Filner’s mantle as labor-union apparatchik.
A few years ago, San Diego, like many other California cities, was on the verge of bankruptcy because of the insanely favorable deals that city officials had made with city workers. Now the place is sort of back on its feet, but the unions remain as greedy as ever. Alvarez ran with about 20% more money than Faulconer, and about 80% of Alvarez’ money came from government employee unions. It was an instance of the employees trying to take over the company — except that in this case, the company has the power to make everyone pay for whatever the employees do.
Faulconer’s supposed liability was that he (like all other Republicans, according to the common mythology) was the candidate of rich people. Yet the donations of the rich were only a minority of his campaign fund, which, as I mentioned, was much smaller than that of Alvarez, the friend of the poor and excluded. It was also charged that Faulconer was the candidate of white old men. This wasn’t said in so many words, but it was conveyed in the usual campaign style and with the usual so-called reporting on the usual so-called public opinion polls. When Alvarez seemed, in late polling, to be narrowing the gap with his opponent, it was said in the local media that Faulconer’s fate depended entirely on the willingness of white old men to totter to the voting booth.
Alvarez ran with about 20% more money than "the candidate of rich people," Faulconer, and about 80% of Alvarez’ money came from government employee unions.
Now, Alvarez is only 33 years old, and the Faulconer people made a huge and really silly issue out of his youth and inexperience. Faulconer himself is only 47 — fairly young for a successful politician. Both are reasonably personable. Neither has skeletons in the closet. So far, there’s a rough equality. But what about political customs and allegiances? Like much of the rest of the country, San Diego has a long history of moderate Republicanism. Still, in 2012 Obama won 61% of the city’s votes. Obama endorsed Alvarez; and the Democratic labor unions, both local and national, paid for an immense get-out-the-vote drive. For weeks before the election, people with Spanish surnames and people in left-leaning parts of the city, such as mine, were deluged with propaganda. The calls and mailings came at them from both sides, but it was representatives of Alvarez who came and knocked on their doors, sometimes returning three or four times. On election day I could hear, all afternoon, young men with big voices pounding on the doors of people with Spanish surnames and calling them out to vote. Feeling the muscle of their organization, the Alvarez people became confident of victory.
Then, on election night, their hopes were ended. Alvarez got about 45% of the vote, and his Republican opponent got about 55%. It’s possible to say that the turnout was a few percentage points higher in the Faulconer districts than in the Alvarez districts, but there were exceptions both ways. Republicans are usually more certain to vote than Democrats, despite all the get-out-the-vote efforts on the other side — but not always. As for rich people, the latest polls had shown only a 1% advantage for Faulconer among the well-off. Several wealthy districts went for Alvarez or almost did. As Bill Bradford used to say, “Wealth is liberal.”
So what are the lessons for America as a whole? They are all probable, not definite, but there is some clarity here.
- Obama is a detriment, if anything, to Democrats’ campaigns.
- Get-out-the-vote has been badly overrated.
- Ethnicity has been badly overrated.
- As professional pollsters know, though seldom say, Democratic voters often exaggerate their commitment to vote, and other voters often tell people on the phone that they are planning to vote for someone of minority ethnicity, just to sound nice.
- The identification of Republicans with “a dwindling number of old white men” is silly.
- Unions continue their furious slide downhill.
- A Republican campaign that focuses not on “issues” but on “the work to be done” is likely to succeed. This “work” is not “restoring a sense of community” or “addressing income inequality” or “valuing education” but actual stuff you can see getting done, like synchronizing the traffic lights, getting the bums out of the library restrooms, or lowering the tax rate.
San Diego has always been a socially liberal town, informal and discretely religious. Its social liberalism is balanced by the strong social conservatism of its large military population. But these isms are apples and oranges — social liberals in one sense can be social conservatives in another. I often say that San Diego is as far west as the Midwest gets. In that sense, it is a reflection of America.
Faulconer’s campaign was about financing and maintaining a basic San Diego — fixing the roads, paying the bills, and not paying anybody extra just because he’s union labor. It was not about moral or metaphysical issues — gay marriage, abortion, income inequality, whatever. Alvarez probably wished that it had been about those things. His own campaign persistently assumed that all gay people and Mexican American people and female people and workin’ people are or ought to be Progressive Democrats who favor spending money that you don’t have and making social promises that you can’t keep. It additionally assumed that all Republicans are old male white homophobes, and have a moral screw loose, being opposed both to “diversity” and to “unity.” These demographic assumptions now appear not to be true or electorally useful, and why should anybody have thought that they were?
I imagine that if the Republicans can talk about paying bills and fixing roads, they can show that those assumptions aren’t any truer about America as a whole than they were about San Diego. Do I think that talk of this kind is the be-all and end-all of politics? I do not. But I’d rather have the bills paid and the roads fixed than see another Obama elected.