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The Field's Set for the 2018 Mayor's Race: So Who's Going to Win?

It could be anyone...named Leno, Breed, or Kim.


Here’s something San Francisco voters haven’t faced in the last 15 years: A genuinely competitive mayoral race, one in which progressives may have their best chance to take the top spot at City Hall in a political generation. On June 5, voters will decide from a field of eight candidates to replace late Mayor Ed Lee, with the race shaping up as a contest between three major contenders—Board of Supervisors president (and current acting mayor) London Breed, former State Senator Mark Leno, and Supervisor Jane Kim. The final field includes five other contenders, with only one, former Supervisor Angela Alioto, having any real name recognition among voters (although even that memory is likely faint, it being 20 years since Alioto last held office).

But which of these three has the best chance at winning? “Given the racial and ideological dynamics, Mark Leno is the front runner,” says Jason McDaniel, professor of political science at San Francisco State University. He compares June’s election to the one in 2003 in which Green Party member Matt Gonzalez lost a ”very, very close” race to Gavin Newsom, then the president of the board of supervisors. (Coincidentally, Alioto ran in that race, too.)

Leno announced he would be running for mayor in May 2017, giving him a long head start in fundraising and endorsements headed into what turned into an unexpected sprint. By contrast, Breed received an unexpected boost by taking over as acting mayor, ultimately pushing her ahead of other likely moderate candidates, including Assemblyman David Chiu. For Kim, who recently lost a race against Supervisor Scott Wiener for a seat in the state senate, she has the advantage of being the only prominent Asian American candidate of the three. She also has desperation on her side: This race may be her last best chance to stay an ascending political star.

According to two publicly-available polls, early pictures of voters’ preferences indicate Breed and Leno leading the race, with Kim trailing from somewhere between a wide and small margin. A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on December 18th and 19th found Leno with 26 percent of the first place votes, followed by Breed at 20 percent, and Kim at 5 percent, with 23 percent undecided and a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. A separate poll taken by EMC Research from December 27th to January 3rd found Leno and Breed at 15 percent, with Kim at 12 percent. The margin of error was 4.9 percentage points. Half of those in the survey were undecided. Alioto as not included in the first survey, and polled at four points in the second.

“This is one of our most important political years, quite possible a realignment election,” says David Latterman, principal at Brick Circle Advisors and a longtime consultant to moderate candidates. “If we get a progressive winner in June and the board turns progressive in November’s election, then we are locked in to a very different city.”

Breed is likely to appeal for the support of moderate voters who have selected the winners of mayoral races for decades. Kim and Leno, by contrast, will hope to appeal to the city’s smaller pool of progressive voters, while capturing large chunks of important ethnic and minority groups (for Kim, that means Asians; for Leno, LGBTQs). Leno, by virtue of a career in Sacramento from 2002 to 2016, may have a path towards peeling off enough otherwise moderate voters to assembly a winning coalition: He has repeatedly won citywide election, establishing strong name recognition, and as one of San Francisco’s envoys to the state capitol, skirted controversies like the vote to remove Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi from office or the vote to establish the Twitter tax break, both of which Kim, as a Supe, could not avoid. Also working in his favor is his amiable personality. “It’s very hard to dislike Mark,” says Latterman. “Think of the last several progressives to run citywide. Their anger hurt them in the long run.”

That’s not to say that Breed is not a strong candidate. “She’s got a lot of charisma. But it’s not going to be easy,” says McDaniel. As acting mayor—potentially through the June election—she enjoys an incumbency advantage. She also inherits the coalition of voters that put Brown, Newsom, and Lee in office, and thanks to her personal history as a San Francisco native and African-American woman, may be able to make an appeal to the so-called Frisco Coalition—lower and middle class voters along the city’s southern edge who may have otherwise stayed home or voted for progressive candidates.

Kim’s path to victory seems much more narrow than either of her two major competitors. “She’s the only Asian candidate, she has some play with Asian-American voters,” says Latterman, “but she he will not uniformly grab them, like David Chiu would have were he to have run.” Moderate Asian-American voters on the city’s west side could break for Breed, and those associated with the political structure in Chinatown have indicated they will be backing Leno.

That leaves Kim with fewer paths to victory, but not none. “My expectation is Jane will position herself on the left hand side of the spectrum [since] she’s already been there” says former Supervisor John Avalos, who came in second to Lee in the 2011 election and has not yet made an official endorsement in this race. “She’s not going to run as a communist, but she is looking at emulating some of the policies that have come out of the De Blasio administration in New York City.” During her state senate race, Bernie Sanders stumped for Kim—so she may see a path to victory through the votes of local Berniecrats.

As it has in mayoral elections since 2007, San Francisco voters will be using ranked-choice voting to determine the winner, “By eliminating the possibility of a runoff election between two candidates, ranked choice voting may result in a different candidate winning than would have won a head-to-head run-off election,” says McDaniel—but whether that will happen in this race remains to be seen. (The rules work like this: Voters will be asked to rank three candidates in order of support. Election officials will then tally the number of first place votes. If any candidate receives a majority of votes, they win. Otherwise the lowest performing candidate will be dropped and those votes cast in their favor redistributed to the candidate that their voters picked second. The process then repeats until one candidate has a majority.)

Although progressives pushed for the change in voting rules after the 2003 race hoping that it would benefit their candidates, there is little evidence that any candidate who won under the new rules would not have also won under the old rules. Said Corey Cook, Dean of the School of Public Service at Boise State University and an expert on ranked choice voting, “It’s pretty rare,” that the use of ranked-choice voting changes the outcome of a vote—and never in San Francisco. “I heard some folks make the argument that had there been a runoff between the top two 1st place vote getters in 2011, it would have been an interesting runoff between Avalos and Lee. But I don't think there is any evidence at all of that.”

Latterman vociferously disagreed, arguing that this could be the year in which ranked choice voting makes a difference in the outcome. “Let’s say you have three candidates finishing at 25, 25, and 25 percent of the vote,” he says. “They have to think about what’s coming up behind them.” Rich DeLeon, an emeritus professor of political science at San Francisco State University agreed with Latterman. “Barring the emergence of some kind of local 'wave'-instigating issue,” he said, “voters will likely be all over the map responding to cross-pressuring appeals to their interests, identities, and ideologies; which makes me think this mayoral election, especially, will be made to order for ranked choice voting.” (For more on his argument, see this Chronicle op/ed from 2013.)

Going into the election, homelessness and housing affordability remain at the top of voters concerns, as they have for several years. In a poll taken in March, 60 percent of respondents listed homelessness and street behavior as among their top concerns, with 51 percent citing the cost of housing. No other issue in the poll was cited by more than a quarter of respondents. Those results were similar to the same poll conducted in 2016 and corroborated by a similar finding in a biennial survey of residents performed for the Office of the Controller that found 33 percent of respondents citing homelessness as the top issues facing the city and 31 percent citing housing.

Despite his electoral success, Mayor Lee was not widely popular at the time of his death: A poll in May found 38 percent of San Francisco voters approving of the Mayor Lee’s job performance, while 49 disapproved. Regardless of the winner, expect a real change in San Francisco politics: Even if she were to continue many of Lee’s policies, Breed would cut a very different public figure. So would Leno—but his election would mark a real shift in San Francisco’s political dynamics. “If Leno is our progressive mayor,” said Latterman, “we could have done worse.”


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