After an intense, whirlwind campaign, San Diego's precinct polls open Tuesday morning for voters to cast ballots in a special mayoral election to replace Bob Filner, who resigned in disgrace on Aug. 30.
The order of finish, as projected by “likely voter” surveys in the past two weeks, has Councilman Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, in a comfortable driver’s seat.
The real race, according to conventional wisdom, is for second place.
On Monday, National University System's Institute for Policy Research reported that incoming ballots received by the Registrar of Voters since last Tuesday numbered an unexpectedly low 24,000 – most of them from the city's northern neighborhoods.
That, says senior research analyst Vince Vasquez, would seem to suggest that Councilman David Alvarez -- looking to overtake the slim lead of fellow Democrat Nathan Fletcher for second place, and a February runoff election spot -- needs a big turnout of voters from south of Interstate 8 at the precinct polls on Tuesday.
This perspective, from political strategist Jon Elliott, a onetime Filner campaign adviser: "My read is that Nathan has been trending down, and that David has been trending up. And momentum is a very powerful thing in elections. And when your name ends with a 'Z', all you have to do is turn out 'South of 8'. Because he has the opportunity of being the first Latino mayor in San Diego's history."
Pollsters list former city attorney Mike Aguirre and seven other candidates on the ballot as little more than 'spoiler' factor, and there’s disagreement among the various surveys over the size of the bloc of undecided voters.
Whatever the case, with the number of mail ballots now in-house at the registrar’s office comprising just 20 percent of San Diego’s registered voters, election analysts are downgrading their turnout forecasts: Registrar Michael Vu, from 50-plus to 44 percent and National University, from 46 percent to the mid-30s.
In Elliott’s view, even that lower number would be respectable, reflecting an electorate more engaged than in many special elections: “Everyone knows about Filner,” Jon Elliott said in an interview Monday. “Everyone was upset and disgusted. Everyone now wants that chapter behind -- that page turned. Tomorrow starts that process entirely."
Meantime, the race is the subject of social media tracking by Prof. Ming Tsou and a team of researchers at San Diego State University.
They’re analyzing Twitter traffic generated by, and surrounding, the four major candidates -- and looking to establish a correlation between their data and the actual outcome of the election.
Their rankings for Faulconer the last six weeks roughly match the standard polls numbers -- but show a wider split between Fletcher and Alvarez, and more buzz about Aguirre than the support he received in traditional surveys.
Tsou estimates that about two-thirds of the Twitter campaign traffic that his team has been analyzing was on the negative side.
Skeptics question whether Twitter sampling truly reflects a given electorate. But Tsou says it produces indicators that shouldn't be ignored by campaigns or journalists.
"This is like 'the top ten' information in San Diego,” Tsou said. “But it's not decided by the mainstream media, it's by the public … that is the crowd making the decision. Let the crowd share their voice."
The top three candidates and their campaigns have raised a combined total well north of $4 million for the race.
If they spend it all, and the turnout is around the predicted 40 percent, each vote will have cost an average of around $15.