New poll puts Mark Leno on top of tight SF mayoral race

Mark Leno speaks to residents at 24th Street BART plaza. Photo by Julian Mark

This poll undermines the narrative that Leno was “fading.” But it also prompts the question of how credulously the media should cover outside polling in the first place.


So, here’s a funny story. And, to boot, it’s true:

A million years ago, sometime in the early 1940s, a pharmacist’s mate in the wartime U.S. Navy named Joe Pearl mouthed off to the wrong higher-ups. He was driven to a remote location and walked to the foot of a huge mound of soil. His punishment: Dig this heap of dirt over to the other side of the lot, then dig it back here where it stands now.

The officers drove off, leaving Pearl with a shovel in his hand. Hours later, they returned and, just as they’d ordered, the mound of dirt was standing in its original location. “That’ll show you,” they said, and Pearl was loaded into the Jeep and driven off.

And that was that. But Pearl had, of course, done nothing. He never picked up the shovel. He simply waited for the officers to come back. The mound had never moved.

Where were we? Oh yes. The San Francisco mayoral race of 2018. These are heady times. With ballots hitting the mail in May, we’ve reached the campaigns’ stretch runs. Expect to see even more of the candidates’ smiling visages coming through your mail slot or interrupting your YouTube video of Warriors highlights.

You’ll also see new polls. Starting with this column.

So far, the poll that has defined this race was one released in March by the firefighters’ union PAC, a pro-London Breed group, that placed their preferred candidate at 29 percent, Jane Kim at 26 percent and Mark Leno at just 19 percent.

That poll — undertaken by a partisan group and funded by benefactors unknown — has cemented in place a storyline that Breed is the front-runner, Kim is “surging” and Leno is “flagging.”

This poll, however, was not carried down from Mt. Sinai. There was a time when newspapers in this town did their own polls. There was a time when polling wouldn’t be reported on without disclosing the mechanism involved — the phrasing and order of the questions — and who kicked down the corn to pay for it.

And now there’s a new poll (Mission Local elicited reports of its results from half a dozen politicos before tracking down and confirming them with the principals). Paid for by a consortium of labor groups and Equality California — groups that do lean toward Kim and Leno; the poll puts Leno in the lead at 28 percent, Breed at 27 percent — a statistical tie.  Kim comes in third, at 17 percent, Angela Alioto at 6 percent and all other candidates at 12 percent. Nine percent of voters are undecided.

This poll was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research between March 28 and April 3; 610 likely voters were interviewed, including 126 phone interviews in Cantonese and 484 online contacts. When ranked-choice voting scenarios are played out, Leno comes out on top — but it’s tight. It would seem the most proper and honest storyline is that this is a very close, very chaotic race.

If you’re Leno, however — having been buried in the headlines for a month and change as an old white man fading in the race — you can give this a mighty spin. Especially if more polls come out, and soon, that look like this one: You’re “surging!”

If the mainstream media adopted the “fading” narrative, you’d think they’re duty bound to adopt the “surging” storyline. All things being equal, of course.

Or, maybe, the media could handle a little introspection about polling and how to report on it. As noted above, in the past, polls paid for by partisan groups or campaigns never went to press, and they weren’t allowed to establish media narratives of who’s fading and surging and winning and losing. Without thorough analysis of these outside polls — which isn’t happening — it’s hard to say if the poll’s results say more about the mood of the electorate or the poll’s own methodology. “You can get a poll to say anything you want” is one of our grand municipal cliches, along with “you can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.”

So, perhaps voters really have changed their minds. Perhaps candidates are surging or fading. Or, perhaps, it was a tight race before and it remains one now.

Perhaps — as was the case a million years ago when Grandpa Joe was sent out with a shovel in his hand — the soil really hasn’t moved at all.

Most Americans understand football. You may not know the ins and outs of man vs. zone coverage or where a flanker lines up, but you understand the concept.

Most Americans don’t understand rugby. Traditional political campaigns are football. Ranked-choice voting campaigns — like our mayoral race — are rugby.

If you hire a football coach and football players to play a rugby match, you will lose. This is what happened in 2010 when Don Perata decided he didn’t need to deal with ranked-choice voting strategy and Jean Quan ended up as Oakland’s mayor. This is what happened in 2012 when Mike Garcia and F.X. Crowley couldn’t work out a 1-2 strategy and Norman Yee ended up District 7 supervisor.

This race will be decided by second- and third-place votes. And these campaigns understand this, albeit perhaps a bit belatedly in some cases. In the coming weeks, we’ll see candidates and campaigns walk the tightrope of unloading on their opponents while attempting not to alienate those opponents’ voters to the point they won’t get a second-place vote. And if Kim and Leno can avoid the scenario that sank Garcia and Crowley, a workable 1-2 strategy between them presents an obstacle for Breed reaching a majority.

But, as the most recent poll reveals, this is a close race. All of the major candidates are viable winners, and only a fool or a charlatan would make definitive statements at this point. Any honest and thorough coverage of what’s to come will involve explaining the hot mess that is ranked-choice voting — the tabulation of which could drag on for much of June. Perhaps in the future, this city will re-examine how well this system works in truly reflecting the will of the voters. But, in the meantime, it’s the system we’ve got. Strap on your rugby boots, because we’re playing rugby here.

As for voters, which candidate is surging and fading and winning and losing is popcorn-munching fodder and catnip for simplistic media storylines. But the true narrative is that there’s a lot at stake in this race, and it’s going to come down to the wire.

Your vote doesn’t matter. Your votes do.

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2 Comments

  1. Michael Nolan

    Another great piece, Joe, thanks. Was this a phone poll? Voters are not picking up their phones in this era of mobile phones and caller ID. Campaign phone banks have also lost their effectiveness. With Trump sucking up so much air, it’s hard for Breed and Leno to make effective use of TV buys even with their larger war chests. So the ground game (door-knocking, house meetings, candidate appearances) becomes crucial. Jane Kim has the superior field operation and volunteer enthusiasm. She is also the most qualified to take on the job of leading the City. I bet she wins, Joe.

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