Lessons from the San Diego Mayor’s Race: We Can Learn and Then Win


This week, Democrat Congressional candidate Alex Sink lost the special election by 3,400 votes in Florida, despite a significant Latino electorate. The question is why this story keeps repeating. Can people of color successfully capture seats previously held by Republicans?


Expansion, not just persuasion, is the way to win, argues PowerPAC founder and political strategist Andy Wong. In his view, it is a grave mistake for political consultants to run campaigns with the primary goal of convincing primarily moderate white voters. In fact, San Diego mayoral hopeful David Alvarez lost by 17,000 votes in a campaign that didn’t have to end that way.

Instead, Wong argues that campaigns like Alverez’s should invest in voter registration and outreach efforts aimed squarely at the multiracial majority. Here, he breaks down the lessons from San Diego and outlines the path to victory for progressive candidates of color in California and beyond.

This Race Mattered

David Alverez’s bid for mayor rose to the level of national significance after he trumped a white candidate in the Democratic primary and brought in strong polling numbers in the weeks leading up the February matchup with Republican Kevin Faulconer. It suddenly seemed possible that San Diego, once the home of the anti-immigrant “Minutemen”, could elect a progressive Latino mayor in a special election. And the changing population, now 30% Latino with a total of 55% people of color, made this possibility seem more likely.

Money started rolling in. In addition to the $1.5 million raised by the campaign, labor and large donors raised an additional $3 million. If a Latino that championed income equality and opportunity could be elected in California’s 7th largest city, it would signal a sea change in local politics across the nation.

So What Happened?

Andy Wong points to failed political strategy and misplaced campaign spending priorities. Of the $4.5 million, the vast majority of money was spent on mail and field strategies aimed at persuading “decline to state” voters in heavily white precincts in the northern parts of the city. Only about $150,000 of that amount was dedicated to increasing the voter participation of communities of color futher south. Wong calculates that upwards of 13,000 votes were left on the table and, coupled with a focus on increasing voter turnout, could have resulted in a victory for Alvarez.

The campaign spending priorities were based on old-style thinking that reasons that voters of color don’t reliably turn out in high numbers. Thus, campaign professionals rely on the “magical likely voter”, a majority white voting sector, as the fundamental baseline for a campaign. But, as was shown in the Alvarez effort, using this approach campaigns lose the moderate white vote again and again.

Instead, argues Wong, successful campaigns focus on people of color because they in fact do vote reliably when campaigns change the focus on their effort. When Filner ran for mayor in 2012, as a result of a modest 37 day voter registration drive, over 50,000 new voters were added of which over 60% were young or of color. The turnout of the newly registered voters was an astounding 82%. Those numbers won the race for Filner and a similar effort could have made the difference for Alvarez.

Here’s even more detail. Alvarez lost his race in the “vote by mail” ballots by a margin of 19,866. In addition, Alvarez’s base precincts turned out to vote 13% points lower than the average Faulconer base precinct which averaged between 36% vs. 49%. Alvarez won on election day among poll voters. But it wasn’t enough.

The Big Lessons Every Campaign Must Learn

Wong cites several lessons from the Alverez campaign.

First, campaigns must invest in voter registration and voter turnout in communities of color – early enough to impact voters who cast their vote by mail. That investment would have the long-term benefits of higher numbers of registrants even with an Alvarez loss.

Second, partnering with Latino media would have made a tremendous difference in Latino turnout. 80% of Latinos get their news from Spanish language television and there is great power to investing in get out the vote commercials and public service announcements to this audience.

Third, coalitions among people of color are critical. Republicans were able to fracture the black and brown vote by portraying Alvarez as a “mayor for some.” Those same ads showed Alvarez holding a wad of cash and suggesting he was affiliated with gangs. For moderate white voters, racism has been proven to be an effective technique to win their vote. However, strong coalitions with African-Americans could have muted the impact of such ads.

Fourth, campaign should not ignore major segments of the multiracial majority – and should develop materials and strategies to reach these communities. In San Diego, Filipinos are an important voting block where newly registered voters turned out to vote in 2012 to the tune of 81%. Reaching these communities should not be an afterthought, but central to campaign strategy.

Finally, the $150,000 invested in community outreach should have been more like $500,000. Community groups registration and voter turn out efforts are proven to be a cost-effective and successful way for progressives to win. Community organizers know how to engage the community and voters.

Where Do We Go From Here?

“The tragedy of the David Alverez campaign is that there was a chance to make a real difference not just for San Diego but for communities across the country. There are many states that are experiencing a similar demographic change as San Diego,” Wong says. But instead of concluding that progressive Latinos cannot win, we need to refocus for them to win, he adds.

Instead of just persuasion we need to add expansion through voter registration and outreach efforts, key componenets of a community organizing strategy. Campaigns and supporters should invest in community organizing to win campaigns in other areas – Texas, North Carolina, Colorado and Georgia among other states.

In the longer-term, we must invest changes to make registering to vote easier. In California, PowerPAC partnered with Common Cause on successful legislation that instituted online voter registration an effort that resulted in almost 600,000 new California registrations in 37 days prior to the November 2012 election.

If campaigns that champion the hopes and needs of communities of color – Wendy Davis in Texas, Pete Aguilar in San Bernardino County, California, Michelle Nunn in Georgia – they must heed the lessons to win.

Check out more content on our Political Intelligence blog >>