Ms. Quan’s Difficult Road to Re-election

Apr 10, 2014

Posted in Elections & Voting Rights

A CounterPoints Column

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Nothing that happened at last week’s public safety forum at Temple Sinai to change the basic equation of this year’s Oakland Mayoral election. Mayor Jean Quan still has a difficult pathway to re-election.

And each of her five major challengers-City Councilmember Libby Schaaf, City Auditor Courtney Ruby, businessman Joe Tuman, former School Board member Dan Siegel, and Port Commissioner Bryan Parker-still has the equally difficult task of trying to separate themselves from the pack if they want to be the one to defeat Ms. Quan and take her place at City Hall next year.

This is no prediction as to what I think the outcome of the race will be, as I don’t make election predictions. It’s only my personal assessment of the Oakland mayoral election as it currently stands.

Anyway, Ms. Quan’s present electoral difficulties are a combination of the political and the mathematical, complicated by Oakland’s ranked-choice voting system that was put in place four years ago.

A November, 2013 David Binder poll of the mayor’s race commissioned by the pro-business Jobs and Housing Coalition highlighted those difficulties.

The results had Ms. Quan coming in first in polling for “first choice” votes at 32 percent, with Tuman at 22 percent, Schaaf at 16 percent, and Parker at 10 percent.

Unfortunately for Ms. Quan, voters don’t get just a “first choice” vote for a candidate for mayor, they also get a second and third choice as well. And that’s where the Quan campaign runs into problems.

If she were a challenger in the race-as she was in 2010-or if Oakland were still operating under a runoff election system, that 32 percent figure and a 10-point lead over her nearest rival would amount to pretty good news.

Jean Quan

It would get her into a runoff in which she would then hope to expose and exploit flaws in a single opponent, campaigning to convince voters that whatever they might think of her, she’s better than the one person she’s running against.

On the other hand, the 32 percent in “first choice” votes in a ranked-choice voting system is a pretty disheartening for an incumbent mayor running in a ranked-choice voting system.

I’ll tell you why.

For a challenger, getting 32 percent in the first round of vote-counting in a ranked choice election is like money in the bank, especially if the next closest candidate is 10 percentage points behind.

That would put a candidate within reach of victory by adding second and third choice votes to the total in the succeeding rounds of counting as lower level candidates are eliminated and the votes for them are redistributed.

That’s because when you get into the later rounds of vote counting under the ranked choice system, each vote has the same weight and value, regardless of whether it was a first, second, or third choice vote.

You just add them all up equally, and the the first candidate who gets over 50 percent wins. That’s exactly how Ms. Quan campaigned and won the Oakland mayor’s seat in 2010, openly asking voters to make her their second choice if she was not their first choice.

Political analyst and former California House Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown thinks the same thing will happen for Ms. Quan again this time around, writing in a San Francisco Chronicle column last month that his “prediction is that unless City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan gets in the race, Quan Š stands a good chance of winning re-election in November.”

“If Kaplan is out,” Mr. Brown went on to explain, “the only way Quan could lose would be if the other candidates banded together to urge their supporters not to make her their second or third choice.”

Reluctant as I am to challenge Mr. Brown’s political expertise, I think he’s wrong on this particular analysis.

Whether or not Ms. Quan wins re-election or not-and as I said earlier, I’m not in the predicting business so I’m not predicting one way or another-her challengers don’t have to run a “keep Quan off your ballot altogether” campaign for the mayor to fail in getting significant second and third choice votes.

That’s because while a challenger is evaluated on how they might do as mayor, as Ms. Quan was evaluated in 2010, an incumbent mayor is evaluated on what they have already done as mayor. That’s what Ms. Quan is facing this year.

If a voter making such an evaluation this year believes that Ms. Quan does not deserve their first choice vote, they are far less likely to give her a second or third choice vote than they were in 2010.

And how are Oakland voters currently evaluating the Quan Administration? A SurveyUSA poll conducted early last month showed Ms. Quan’s approval rating at 23 percent, with her disapproval at 60 percent. That’s pretty devastating an assessment.

You might dismiss the findings if it was only present in one poll. But that voter opinion of Ms. Quan’s first term as mayor was reflected in the November, 2013 David Binder poll.

While the mayor led the field with 32 percent of first choice votes in the Binder poll, she came in last in the field with 7 percent of second choice votes.

That was before Ms. Schaaf had actually declared her candidacy and Ms. Ruby and Mr. Siegel got into the race and began figuring in the voters’ calculations, and before Mr. Parker significantly raised his public profile by strategic spending of his large campaign bankroll.

Those developments could only mean that the mayor’s second choice totals would be more likely to have gone down since Mr. Binder polled Oakland voters, rather than up.

With whatever her third choice votes might be, that would leave her stuck somewhere in the low to mid 40 percent total, not enough to win, contrary to what Willie Brown believes will happen.

What this means that Ms. Quan’s road to victory might lie not in the direction of outpolling the others in second and third choice votes, but in a significantly decreasing number of second and third choice votes for everybody, so that her first choice votes end up as a larger and larger pecentage of the total votes cast as the balloting goes deeper into the elimination rounds.

That’s a possibility but, with so many attractive candidates on the ballot, it’s not the most likely of scenarios.

To win, therefore, Ms. Quan has to make the case that even though voters did not particularly like how her first term came out, either better results from her past policies and decisions and actions will begin to kick in during a second term or, in the alternative, she will pledge and promise do things differently in her second term that will make for better results than in the first.

Tearing down the other candidates is also a possibilty for Ms. Quan, but there is a danger that such negative campaign might work as much against the mayor with voters as it might work against her opponents.

That leaves the 2014 Oakland mayoral campaign as we started, with a difficult road to re-election for Ms. Quan. But one must remember that at the beginning of the 2010 Oakland mayoral race, Ms. Quan was not favored to beat out former State Senator Don Perata, with San Francisco Chronicle columnist predicting that “there is nothing standing between Don Perata and the Oakland mayor’s office but time, opportunity and blue skies.”

We all know how that one turned out, so none of Ms. Quan’s many challengers should be making plans to change the color of the drapes in the mayor’s office just yet. None of them may end up making the case to Oakland voters that they, rather than Ms. Quan, should spend the next four years running Oakland’s city government.

There’s plenty of campaigning left to go before November, and a wide collection of candidates to follow and evaluate. Let’s spend the next few months doing that evaluation and sorting out. There’s no rush, and it’s an important decision to make, with the lives and safety and comfort of so many citizens at stake, as well as the future of our city.