Win May Hinge on Turnout

Times Staff Writer

With the election just nine days away, top contenders for mayor of Los Angeles are mounting elaborate efforts to prod supporters to the polls, deploying hundreds of workers to gain even the slightest edge in case of a close finish.

A variety of factors has heightened the importance of each candidate’s turnout operation. Scant public interest in the race suggests that overall turnout could be dismal, which means that each candidate needs to generate a strong showing of core supporters.

Also, polls have found four of the major candidates bunched together with slim shares of the electorate -- just 12% to 21% apiece, according to a Times survey completed early this month.

The striking number of late-deciding voters -- nearly a third in the Times Poll had yet to make up their minds -- enhances the possibility that luring just a few extra supporters might change the outcome of the March 8 election.

So, each candidate is counting on squads of volunteers and paid staff to blanket precisely chosen voters with phone calls -- or in many cases to visit their homes.


“Hi, I’m calling for Juanita,” volunteer Rudy Garcia told a voter one recent evening from a round cocktail table at mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa’s Boyle Heights headquarters, a former dance hall now full of lawn signs and campaign posters. “What about Ray? Is Ray available? How about Yvonne?”

After plugging Villaraigosa’s crime and education plans to Yvonne, Garcia asked: “Can we count on your support for Antonio on March the eighth?”

“Oh, great -- excellent,” he said, minutes before pizza arrived for him and half a dozen other volunteers working the phones at tables alongside the former dance floor.

For all the campaigns, these “field” crews track voter responses. Those whose support seems certain are apt to get another call or visit on election day -- a reminder to show up at the polls.

The potential for such get-out-the-vote drives to sway an election was demonstrated in November when Christine Gregoire was elected governor of Washington by just 129 votes out of nearly 3 million cast. Nearly 500,000 voters cast ballots in the Los Angeles mayoral election four years ago.

“Field is not going to rescue a losing campaign, but it’s going to make the difference in a close one,” said Jim Hayes, president of Political Data, a Burbank firm that sells voter lists that help campaigns target their most likely supporters.

In the Los Angeles race, Mayor James K. Hahn holds a formidable advantage over his challengers. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor is putting hundreds of volunteers to work on his behalf. On Saturday, Hahn joined more than 100 of them at a longshoremen’s hall before the volunteers left to walk door-to-door soliciting votes in San Pedro, where the mayor lives.

Yet Hahn’s rivals have strong suits of their own in the field game, such as more clearly defined -- and in some cases deeper -- bases of support among specific voting blocs.

City Councilman Bernard C. Parks runs strongly among African Americans in South Los Angeles. Villaraigosa, also a councilman, built a citywide base of Latinos, liberals and other groups in his 2001 run for mayor. Polls suggest that former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg of Sherman Oaks can target white conservatives and moderates in a crescent around the San Fernando Valley’s north, west and south sides.

The night that Garcia was making calls from Villaraigosa’s headquarters, all the volunteers were calling Latinos on the Westside, marking whether each voter was a yes, no or undecided in preparation for follow-up calls.

Next to a bar stocked with Pop-Tarts, cookies and potato chips was a stack of manila folders with maps and voter lists brought to the headquarters by a dozen volunteers who had knocked on voters’ doors in the same neighborhoods earlier in the day.

The campaigns use various tools to come up with phone numbers and addresses of would-be supporters. Public and private polls define the demographics of a candidate’s likely supporters.

Lists of voters supplied by companies such as Political Data narrow the scope of people to call by identifying those with a history of casting ballots in city elections. Using surname dictionaries, the firms can distinguish many voters by ethnic group. Census data can further narrow the field.

“If you don’t know who your voters are, you’re kind of blaring your information out in the dark,” Hertzberg field director Sue Burnside said. “We’re knocking on the specific door of a specific voter that our campaign -- and maybe solely our campaign -- wants to talk to.”

Burnside declined to identify any voter groups on her target lists. Operatives at rival campaigns share her reluctance to divulge details on field operations. Hahn campaign advisor Kam Kuwata declined even to say where volunteers were making calls for the mayor’s reelection effort.

“Campaigns have been known to sabotage phone banks -- cut phone lines and things like that,” Kuwata said. “I’m not pointing a finger, but you have to be prepared.”

Another candidate, state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley), said his volunteers were making calls every day from his five campaign offices and from two private businesses. Asked to identify them, he responded, “I’d rather not say.”

Alarcon knows the importance of field operations from personal experience; he won his Senate seat in 1998 by a margin of just 29 votes. Polls show him in a distant fifth place in the mayor’s race, but Alarcon said he expected the “hundreds” of volunteers in his turnout operation to draw a surge of supporters to the polls.

For Villaraigosa, get-out-the-vote efforts in the days ahead are sure to pale in comparison to his 2001 campaign, when the Democratic Party and the labor federation were enormous sources of support. He must replace them this time with volunteers.

Kuwata, the mayor’s campaign advisor, said Hahn’s push to win endorsements from the federation and the party -- which declined to back a candidate this year -- was designed mainly “to prevent Antonio from having his voter turnout operation.”

But the federation and its 345 locals are offering Hahn substantially less support than they gave Villaraigosa. As a well-known incumbent, Hahn needs less help than Villaraigosa did in 2001 when he was a former Assembly speaker unfamiliar to most Los Angeles voters, said Miguel Contreras, secretary-treasurer of the federation.

The unions, which spent more than $1.5 million on Villaraigosa’s 2001 campaign, expect to devote $500,000 to $800,000 to Hahn’s reelection fight -- most of it saved for the May runoff campaign on the presumption that Hahn makes it.

“All the unions know that they have to reserve money for the runoff, and that’s what they’re doing,” Contreras said.

Despite the federation’s switch to Hahn, Villaraigosa’s operation is buttressed by a more limited effort of United Teachers Los Angeles, for which the councilman was once an organizer. Among other things, the teachers union has sent mail urging more than 20,000 members who live in Los Angeles to vote for Villaraigosa.

As for Parks, the former Los Angeles police chief has put Jewett Walker, a field operations specialist, in charge of his entire campaign. Beyond the candidate’s South Los Angeles base, his get-out-the-vote drive targets Republicans and conservatives -- many of them in the Valley -- Walker said.

Overall, the effort is focused on 10 of the city’s 15 council districts.

With less money for television ads than Hahn, Hertzberg or Villaraigosa, Parks is relying heavily on volunteer phone calls and visits to voters’ homes. But Walker said the Parks effort -- like those of other candidates -- has been “dampened quite a bit by the weather.”