James K. Hahn won the mayor's race in Los Angeles because he captured the many moderate to conservative voters who supported other candidates in the first round of the election and held them, largely with an appeal to public safety concerns that his opponent could not match.
Polls and interviews indicate that Hahn had already secured his final margin of victory more than a week before election day and before he began airing the controversial television ads that featured images of a crack cocaine pipe and Villaraigosa's ill-advised letter to the White House on behalf of a drug dealer.
The sharp attack on Villaraigosa's letter for Carlos Vignali may have only served to cement a sense among key swing voters that the former Assembly speaker was soft on crime and not trustworthy enough to be mayor.
From nearly the start of the eight-week runoff campaign, Hahn captured the political middle, forced the debate onto his strongest issue, public safety, and never weakened his family's enduring grip on the loyalties of African American voters.
Hahn may not have wowed the media with verve or brash pronouncements, but his campaign stuck with a plan well suited to the city attorney's earnest and straightforward style. The strategy sold Hahn as the moderate man of experience who knew how to fix problems within city government.
The city attorney stuck to that disciplined course as his fortunes ebbed and flowed. He sustained early attacks on his record, narrowly secured second place in the April election to earn a spot in the runoff and then persisted with sharp attack ads against rival Antonio Villaraigosa, despite allegations of "dirty" campaigning.
"There was a strategic discipline and the Hahn camp understood where the electorate really was," said Julie Buckner, a political consultant who worked on state Controller Kathleen Connell's failed bid for mayor. 'They stayed on a message that was very law-and-order and appealed to moderate voters."
Villaraigosa emerged from a crowded field to become the first Latino within striking distance of the mayor's office in more than a century. That in itself was viewed as a victory by some of the former legislator's supporters. But attempts to widen his appeal, principally with a slew of endorsements, failed to expand Villaraigosa's backing substantially beyond his liberal and Latino bases of support. Those labels were a key to establishing an identity in April, but became an albatross in Tuesday's runoff.
With all of the city's precincts counted, Hahn won 293,273 votes (53.5%) to Villaraigosa's 254,491 (46.5%). The former legislator was able to remain in contention, in some measure, because two heavily Latino City Council districts on the Eastside led the city in voter turnout on election day. Still, turnout citywide lagged at 36%, less than the 43% of voters who cast ballots in the 1993 mayoral election.
The shifting nature of the electorate--now at a modern high with 22% Latinos and 49% liberals--suggested a new dynamic would be at play in the runoff. But both candidates being liberal Democrats had the effect of throwing the decisive votes to conservatives, whose candidates were eliminated in the first round of the election on April 10.
Hahn's advantage came largely from voters who previously had backed Republican businessman Steve Soboroff and Councilman Joel Wachs in the first round of the election. Soboroff voters went 83% to Hahn and Wachs' voters 62% for Hahn in Tuesday's vote, The Times exit poll found.
His campaign locked up many of those votes early with a substantial absentee voter campaign. Some of those mailers targeted older and more conservative voters who are more likely to vote by mail. The final vote tally suggested that the 2-to-1 margin among absentee ballots, about 28,000, helped extend Hahn's final margin of victory.
"The shift of the city's political power to the left doesn't mean that the candidate farthest to the left will prevail," said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political scientist. "There remains in this liberal city an essential need for moderation, particularly on the issue of public safety. It's stressed again here because the two citywide winners [Hahn and City Atty.-elect Rocky Delgadillo] were both perceived as more moderate than the candidates they defeated."
The challenge of the Los Angeles mayoral contest, from the start, was to establish enough of an identity in the crowded April contest to finish in the top two positions, thus winning a spot in the June runoff. But the two top finishers had to remain agile enough to appeal to a wider array of voters in the second round.
Villaraigosa had laid his groundwork exhaustively in the years leading up to the race. The many contacts he made in Sacramento paid off in a string of endorsements that gave his candidacy momentum--the Sierra Club, National Organization for Women, California Democratic Party, County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and, finally, Gov. Gray Davis.
But the price Villaraigosa, 48, paid for his momentum and credibility was an identification with the liberal mainstays of the Democratic Party.
"In the primary, he told everyone 'I'm the liberal Democrat in this race,' " said Hahn's consultant, Bill Carrick. "It was harder for him to move back to the center after that."
Even on the night of the primary election, Hahn signaled that he would try to shift the debate to public safety--focusing on Villaraigosa's liberal voting record in the Assembly on crime and punishment issues. Although Hahn exaggerated some of his claims, the issue ended up grabbing much of the spotlight during the runoff.
Villaraigosa soon thought he could gain the upper hand on the issue, when Hahn signed a pledge with the police union, promising to shorten some officers' schedules to three days a week, 12 hours a day. Villaraigosa tried to depict that move as a sellout and a threat to public safety, but voters did not seem to focus on the fine points of police scheduling. And the Hahn camp was quietly pleased; their opponent was fighting the contest on their turf.
Over lunch on election day, Hahn smiled as he recalled Villaraigosa's preoccupation with the police scheduling. "He made public safety the issue of the runoff. And I just thought, 'Thank you,' " Hahn said, looking heavenward.
Villaraigosa's gregarious personality and restless campaigning style won over many during the months of the campaign. But Hahn seemed to grow increasingly confident. "This is not the same Jim Hahn I saw two years ago," said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who endorsed Villaraigosa late in the campaign. "In terms of stump speeches and interviews and style--he was much more polished and at ease. He was growing into it."
The city attorney, although principally an administrator, could also claim to be a "20-year prosecutor," because of his stint as a deputy city attorney and time as administrator over hundreds of attorneys who try misdemeanor cases.
The candidate and his campaign literature repeated charges that Villaraigosa had voted to go easy on criminal offenders. Hahn said his opponent sympathized more with criminals than with their victims. The crime stands proved Villaraigosa could not be trusted, Hahn's supporters said.
A Times Poll conducted from May 22 through May 28 indicated that the attacks seemed to be working. It showed that Hahn had the "trust" of 72% of voters, compared to just 55% who said Villaraigosa had the integrity to be mayor. Villaraigosa trailed Hahn by 7 percentage points at that point.
The ads describing Villaraigosa's letter on behalf of Vignali began airing about that time. But on election day, Hahn finished the same 7 points ahead.
The same poll revealed that Hahn had already taken an overwhelmingly lead in voters' perceptions of who would do a better job of holding down crime: with 53% saying Hahn and just 19% saying Villaraigosa.
A computer analysis of final returns by The Times shows that Hahn dominated in a wide swath of precincts in the west San Fernando Valley, enough to overcome Villaraigosa's advantage in the heavily Latino wards of Pacoima and Sun Valley. The Valley contributed 42% of the overall ballots and Hahn won 55% to 44% there.
Villaraigosa's team waged an aggressive campaign to break up the bloc vote among African Americans for Hahn in South Los Angeles. But despite the use of precinct teams to contact thousands of voters directly, Villaraigosa mustered just one in five black votes, less than the 25% to 30% he had counted on.
Villaraigosa's greatest appeal to voters throughout the contest remained his calls for civic unity and bringing diverse groups together. But he was never able to mount a consistent argument about why voters should reject Hahn.
Some observers thought that Villaraigosa could have linked the city attorney to a hidebound City Hall bureaucracy. But that, they said, carried the risk of appearing too threatening to voters who might be considering a liberal Latino for the first time.
"I think he could have gone after Hahn as being a representative of the political establishment and the status quo," said Sonenshein. 'Instead, he was playing the entire general election on Hahn's territory."
Without an issue to clearly inoculate him with moderates and conservatives, Villaraigosa hoped his endorsement from Republican Mayor Richard Riordan would give him "cover in the middle," as political professionals say. But Riordan's endorsement, much fought over by the two candidates, appeared to do little to swing support to Villaraigosa.
"My theory all along was that the Riordan endorsement would make Villaraigosa safe for moderates," said Hahn strategist Carrick. "But that didn't happen."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
White: 72%; Latino: 10%; Black: 12%; Asian: 4%; Other: 2% *
White: 52%; Latino: 22%; Black: 17%; Asian: 6%; Other: 3%
* Note: Decline in the white vote is due primarily to a decrease in non-Jewish whites--54% in 1993 and 36% Tuesday.
Source: L.A. Times exit polls for mayoral race
Times staff writers Terry Monmaney and Beth Shuster contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Times' exit poll reveals how various groups of Los Angeles voters cast their ballots for mayor and city attorney in Tuesday's election. The columns of percentages on the right read horizontally. For example, of all Westsiders who voted for mayor, 48% voted for James K. Hahn and 52% voted for Antonio Villaraigosa.
% of all Mayor City Attorney voters Hahn Villaraigosa Delgadillo Feuer TOTALS 100% All Voters* 54% 46 52% 48 DIRECTION OF L.A. 66% Right direction 52% 48 52% 48 34 Wrong track 59% 41 54% 46 BY REGION 18% Westside 48% 52 45% 55 42 San Fernando Valley 55% 45 52% 48 21 Central 42% 58 49% 51 19 South 67% 33 65% 35 RACE/ETHNICITY 52% Whites 59% 41 39% 61 17 Blacks 80% 20 59% 41 22 Latinos 18% 82 79% 21 6 Asians 65% 35 47% 53 GENDER 47% Men 52% 48 52% 48 53 Women 56% 44 51% 49 AGE 9% 18 - 29 42% 58 62% 38 29 30 - 44 44% 56 59% 41 40 45 - 64 57% 43 49% 51 22 65 or older 67% 33 42% 58 AGE OF LATINOS/BLACKS 12% Latinos 18 - 44 15% 85 81% 19 10 Latinos 45 and older 22% 78 75% 25 7 Blacks 18 - 44 73% 27 63% 37 10 Blacks 45 and older 85% 15 55% 45 ANNUAL FAMILY INCOME 11% Less than $20,000 47% 53 70% 30 19 $20,000 to $39,999 54% 46 58% 42 18 $40,000 to $59,999 52% 48 54% 46 28 $60,000 to $100,000 57% 43 49% 51 24 More than $100,000 51% 49 43% 57 EDUCATION 20% High school diploma or less 49% 51 66% 34 23 Some college 62% 38 57% 43 57 College degree or more 52% 48 45% 55 UNION AFFILIATION 31% Union households 52% 48 53% 47 69 Not union households 55% 45 51% 49 RELIGION 32% Non-Catholic Christians 69% 31 57% 43 28 Catholics 40% 60 68% 32 18 Jews 54% 46 25% 75 POLITICAL IDEOLOGY 49% Liberals 41% 59 43% 57 29 Moderates 62% 38 55% 45 22 Conservatives 73% 27 66% 34 PARTY REGISTRATION 70% Democrats 48% 52 49% 51 8 Independents 48% 52 52% 48 20 Republicans 79% 21 63% 37 IDEOLOGY AND PARTY 41% Liberal Democrats 41% 59 42% 58 28 Moderate Democrats 58% 42 58% 42 9 Moderate Republicans 70% 30 56% 44 11 Conservative Republicans 87% 13 69% 31 FIRST-TIME VOTERS 5% First-time Calif. voters 31% 69 64% 36 SEXUAL ORIENTATION 7% Gays/lesbians 29% 71 43% 57
* Percentages in this row are from actual returns. They do not include uncounted absentee and provisional ballots.
Note: Numbers in left column may not total 100% where not all voter groups are shown.
How the Poll Was Conducted: The Los Angeles Times Poll interviewed 3,427 voters Tuesday asthey left 62 polling places across Los Angeles. Precincts were chosen based on the pattern ofturnout in past citywide elections. The survey was a self-administered, confidential questionnaire in English and Spanish versions. The margin of sampling error for percentagesbased on the entire sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points; for some subgroups the errormargin may be somewhat higher. Because the survey does not include absentee voters or those who declined to participate when approached, actual returns and demographic estimates by the interviewers were used to adjust the sample slightly. Interviews at the precinct level were conducted by Davis Research of Calabasas. Raphael J. Sonenshein, political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, was a consultant to the Times Poll.
Poll results are also available at http://www.latimes.com/timespoll.