It was a serene Friday morning on Oct. 2, 2015, and Aaron Peskin was, himself, feeling serene.
The Chronicle was predicting that, in one month’s time, he’d be in for the fight of his political life against Supervisor Julie Christensen, its endorsed candidate. Peskin smiled. He wouldn’t be.
“I think,” he said, conspiratorially, leaning over the outdoor table at Caffe Trieste, “I have this thing in the bag.”
His internal polling put him well ahead. His campaign had identified all the thousands of voters he’d need — individually, by name. It had knocked on their doors, entered into their large apartment buildings, conversed with them in multiple languages.
So, yes, he had it in the bag.
That was a shade over five years ago, but it feels like another era. None of the age-old techniques of organization and political engagement that community-based politicians rely upon to win district elections — door-knocking, campaign HQ get-out-the-vote efforts, in-person events — are fully feasible during a pandemic.
And, as such, no San Francisco candidate or ballot measure committee can really know what’s in the bag and what isn’t in 2020. It’s not entirely clear who is present to vote — U-Haul is apparently doing a bang-up business here in San Francisco, but who are the clients? Is it 30-year-old techies returning to the parental basement in Cedar Rapids? Is it wealthy executives decamping to Tahoe? Is it struggling BIPOC service workers heading to the outer rings of the Bay Area? It’s not yet clear, and it’s also not clear how this will affect the results come Nov. 3 — and beyond.
And, of those who are here and voting, it’s not certain who is voting when. Patterns observed over the past decade and change regarding what sorts of people vote early or late are more or less out the window this year — rendering it both more difficult to mount a winning campaign and to interpret the results when they do begin trickling in.
“This election is an absolute outlier,” says one veteran city political operative. “It breaks the patterns we’ve seen developing for the last decade at least.”
Adds a longtime city politico with lots of skin in lots of games, “Everyone is flying blind.”
Not everything has changed, however. This year, millions of dollars in so-called “dark money” is passing through a Russian Doll-like series of anodyne-named committees and producing lurid, Lee Atwater-level ads targeting left-leaning candidates or tax measures aimed at large businesses or high-level real-estate transactions.
That’s not new. What is new, however, is that the methods you’d use to counter this — rallies, door-knocking, the basics of grass-roots campaigning — are either gone or extremely limited. What’s more, the populist elements that used to distinguish a hard-working politician — knocking on tens of thousands of doors; an empathetic hand on the shoulder; a kiss for a baby — now inspire a degree of revulsion among voters.
Candidates began knocking on doors in March, 2019, for last year’s election. Some only started a couple of weeks ago in 2020.
And yet, San Franciscans are voting. In perhaps record numbers. As of Friday, 33 percent of the city’s ballots had already been returned. Nearly 81 percent of San Francisco’s registered voters cast a ballot in 2016, and we may well exceed that this year — perhaps by quite a bit.
So, the plane has taken off, reached altitude, and is cruising along. And yet we are flying blind. We will reach a destination — but, at this point, it’s not clear how. Or when. Or where.
Typical early California voters, says Paul Mitchell, are “the people who know where they keep the stamps.” They’re older. Whiter. Own their homes. Lean conservative.
The more typical day-of-election California voters, Mitchell continues, are often people of color. Younger. Renters. Students. They lean more liberal.
This isn’t just conventional wisdom. It’s documentable. Mitchell, not to be confused with the hair care baron, is the vice president of Political Data, Inc., a bipartisan voter data company headquartered in Southern California.
With PDI’s voter data, a campaign can know the day an individual returned his or her ballot in every election, going back decades — and time their message accordingly. Campaigns can send along the demographically appropriate material at the appropriate time (and, of course, stop sending material once a person has voted).
In 2020, however, new groups of people have found the stamps. Mitchell notes that, this year, early election returns still skew heavily toward “more affluent white homeowners.” But, he continues, “much more Democratic.”
“This is super new,” Mitchell continues. “It’s a total shift in the traditional, habitual ways people have voted.”
It’s happening, to an extent, in San Francisco, too. A local political consultant analyzed the PDI data for the city in the early days of voting. And it revealed that while a goodly chunk of the early voters were exactly the people who always vote early, a roughly equal number were people you’d expect to vote far, far later.
This means campaigns that didn’t promptly send out written materials — and were unable to do in-person type events — didn’t necessarily reach these voters.
In general, progressive candidates are more reliant on pound-the-pavement, GOTV-type efforts than moderate ones. This year, those efforts were severely curtailed — left-leaning candidates who are in the hole after early voting totals are tabulated may not be the beneficiaries of a sizable “blue shift” that generally comes in later counts.
Just as the people lined up for hours to vote early in other parts of the nation may be cannibalizing day-of election totals — not adding to them — many of the late voters San Francisco progressive campaigns count on are voting early this year.
And, in 2020, it’s not only hard to know when San Franciscans will vote — it’s hard to know how they’ll vote.
Let’s say you wanted to funnel a bunch of money to a campaign to bolster a moderate-leaning supervisor candidate in a tight race.
This year, one of the biggest troughs is the No-on-I campaign. Proposition I would double the transfer tax rate on the sellers — the sellers, not the buyers — of properties priced at $10 million or more. Proponents of this tax have pointed out that, since Donald Trump is a part-owner of 555 California St., and since that skyscraper is for sale, San Franciscans could, literally, raise Trump’s taxes.
That’s such a resonant message for San Francisco that the Chamber of Commerce and developers opposing Prop. I have raised some $4.4 million to send around ads claiming that, by some alchemy, this tax will result in small businesses closing and be the death knell of the nail salons (Yes on I has raised, at present, around 4 percent of its detractors’ total).
The No on I campaign has amassed enough money to generate its own cottage industry — funneling dollars to aid moderate candidates and support or oppose other measures. No on I can give generously to the anodyne-named committees and city Democratic clubs that serve as de-facto conduits for large-scale donors. And those outfits can produce literature or slate mail cards dutifully instructing voters to spurn Prop. I. These slate cards also offer endorsements for a variety of other measures and candidates — and are specific for each supervisor district; a glossy photo and endorsement of a preferred moderate candidate will vary depending on which district a recipient lives in.
Again, this is not new or unusual. A lot of the same donors who’ve made six-figure gives to the newly formed Neighbors for a Better San Francisco outfit spreading around scads of money to hamstring progressive candidates and torpedo proposed taxes also ponied up generously for Prop. Q of 2016 to roust homeless tent encampments.
Labor, incidentally, is mounting Independent Expenditure campaigns as well — albeit at a reduced level from past years.
What is a bit unusual in 2020 is the high number of new slate mail cards being sent out (Fun fact: A candidate criticizing Independent Expenditure campaigns can play a neat semantic game and turn a blind eye to Slate Mailer Organizations spending on their behalf).
Not unlike the ersatz products you might find at a swap meet, with names aping well-known brands — Tommy Hilpigger! Fudu! Soni electronics! — these slate mailer cards eerily resemble the ones put out by established political or tenant groups or the Democratic Party itself.
In style, but definitely not in substance.
- It remains to be seen if San Francisco voters parse the difference.
- It remains to be seen if high-volume election mailers and web ads carry the day, with grassroots strategies hamstrung.
- It remains to be seen if underemployed and stressed voters — who likely would not pay the tax measures on this ballot — are sympathetic to a well-funded anti-tax push from business and development interests that would pay these taxes.
- It remains to be seen if our majority renter city will vote down the massive bond — funded via property taxes renters do not directly pay — that our mayor has staked her reputation on.
- It remains to be seen if the body politic that in 2018 overwhelmingly voted to tax big business to fund homeless causes in 2020 votes with big business and is swayed by graphic ads of homeless tents and menacing dope fiends.
So much remains to be seen because we are, again, flying blind. We’ll know we’ve arrived when we feel the bump.