How Steve Zimmer *Really* Won
Hillel Aron | March 13, 2013
In the last few days, many explanations have been tossed about for the Coalition for School Reform’s failure to unseat incumbent Steve Zimmer and replace him with challenger Kate Anderson in last week’s School Board election:
Some have blamed a backlash against out-of-state money given by the likes of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch.
Others have credited union field organizations, especially the one by SEIU local 99.
Still others suggest that the Coalition’s media attacks on Zimmer were off-base and ineffective — or that running a challenger against him was unwise in the first place.
In the absence of exit polls, there’s no conclusive way to tell exactly what voters were thinking. But one thing stands out: the enormous discrepancy between the early vote by mail, which Zimmer won by 16 percentage points, and the primary day vote, which he lost by three.
As you may recall, the initial count of vote by mail ballots by the City Clerk gave Zimmer a whopping 16-point, 3,700-vote lead over Anderson, 13,773 votes to 10,073.
The day after the election, Anderson told LA School Report that it was this discrepancy that was the deciding factor: “if you look at the results, we lost on absentee ballots. Our feeling in the field wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t enough.”
When the final bulletin came in at 2:20 AM, Zimmer led by only four percentage points, or 2,600 votes. The final tally was 32,137 to 29,537.
There are still — shockingly — a whopping 90,167 votes city-wide that are yet to be counted, and the final results of the election won’t be known until March 26. So it’s still possible though highly unlikely that Anderson could win the election.
Of the ballots that we know about that were cast on primary day, Anderson won by 1,100 votes, or about three percent.
That’s a massive difference between the early absentee ballots and the same-day ballots. It’s almost like two different elections.
“I was surprised at the margins among the absentee voters,” said Zimmer’s campaign strategist, Mike Shimpock.
Why the big absentee ballot advantage?
Shimpcock suggested the difference on absentee votes might have been due in part, to Zimmer’s ballot designation as an incumbent and teacher.
Campaign consultants consider ballot designations — the phrases used to describe each candidate on the ballot — critical in their importance to voters.
Others put the blame squarely on the Coalition for School Reform, which spent over $1.5 million on the District 4 race but may not have started its media and field operations early enough.
“I think they started too late,” said one consultant who’s worked with the Coalition in the past. “They should’ve gone up with TV ads in January. It’s not like they were wanting for money.”
As you may recall, the early absentee ballots that Zimmer won by such a huge margin were cast during the period between February 4 and February 26.
Many of those voters would have never seen the Coalition’s TV ads, which started running on cable in the second week of February. Nor would they have seen the negative mailers sent out in response to the $1 million Bloomberg contribution, which was announced on February 12.
What do we know about early voters? Many of them tend to be fairly well-informed voters, white and older. In District 4, that also means many of them are Jewish, most of whom vote Democratic.
Steve Zimmer is also Jewish (he was profiled in a 2011 Jewish Journal cover story). He was also endorsed by the Democratic party, while his opponent, Anderson, was attacked for Republican donations made to the Coalition-backed campaign on her behalf.
“Zimmer had a big advantage with Democrats over 60,” said a political strategist for the Coalition this year. “We were worried about that first report [of early voters]. We expected it to be bad.”
While the Coalition did put almost $200,000 into its own field campaign for District 4, the effort may also have gotten a slow start and have been outmatched in terms of boots on the ground.
UTLA and SEIU members know how to get out the vote — and, significantly, they themselves vote. Many of their friends and family members vote. When voter turnout is low, that can make a huge difference.
Anderson herself said not to discount the Democratic Party’s ability to mobilize early voters.
“I think many absentee ballot voters are driven by organized interests that know how to do this,” she said. “Not just UTLA, but SEIU, the County Fed and the Democratic Party. These are entities that know how to organize.”
She added: “We are, in some senses, a relatively young coalition. We’re still figuring out how to do this.”
Previous posts: Mayor Overreached Against Zimmer, Says Reformer, School Board Primary Averaged $55 Per Vote, Defiant Mayor Promises Continued Involvement, SEIU Local 99 Wins Highlight Value of Field Operations