If local politics are a blood sport, San Francisco's are also a niche sport, with a fanatic minority following the races — and, ultimately, that same select few deciding who runs the region's hub.
Held since the 1940s in odd-numbered off-years — when, ostensibly, the public would pay more attention to local politics — mayoral elections enjoy dependably low voter turnout. Most of the current mayoral campaigns are expecting less than half of the 388,000 city voters who cast ballots in November 2008 to show up this time around. "The rule is, about half the population is registered, and about half of that turns out," said a campaign manager for one of the dozen contenders in the November mayoral contest. If true, that would mean that 75,000 votes — out of a population of 800,000-plus — could be over half the total cast. With 12 candidates, even a small plurality could mean a landslide victory.
That turnout might be lower than usual — about 35 and 45 percent, respectively, of registered voters turned out in 2007 and 2003. Perhaps even more troubling for political wonks is the name recognition enjoyed by departed pols. "About 40 percent of the population," the same manager said, "think Gavin Newsom is still the mayor." But even that number might be optimistic, said professor Corey Cook, the resident political expert at the University of San Francisco. "All the studies say most people can't name their municipal officials," Cook said. "For Newsom to have that high of name recognition while he was in office would have been pretty good, let alone now."
What's making the electorate unaware? The system, for one. Voter turnout was high in 1999, when the mayoral race broke down into easy, left vs. right lines. With ranked choice voting, a dozen candidates are asking for second and third place votes, and — as Cook says — "there are a dozen shades of gray." Too much ambiguity reduces turnout, as does local media's handling of the top candidates. "The more that papers print that Ed Lee is a shoo-in," said a consultant working for one of Lee's chief rivals, "the less people are going to vote."
The uninterested voting population and splintered field of candidates mean campaigns must work extra hard and use extra resources to figure out exactly who to encourage to vote. Only likely voters — those who voted in two of four recent elections — are targeted for polling, and then those voters are asked several times if they plan to vote — and if so, for whom — before they're hit with mailers or door knocks, says another consultant. The many who still believe S.F.'s executive uses hair gel rather than mustache wax aren't considered likely voters, which means they won't be targeted. Which means S.F.'s political echo chamber isn't changing anytime soon. Still, it makes wonks think. "I wonder if Gavin's approval rating has gone up, now that he's left office," Cook mused.