Many races in San Francisco become pitched battles between moderates and progressives, sometimes contributing to a theme of ‘establishment’ versus insurgent. Hall seems to be angling primarily for insurgent status, creating a David versus Goliath situation to rally voters to his cause.
This might work in other circumstances. In 2003 then-Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez rode a wave of discontent to reach a runoff in the mayoral race with Democrat Gavin Newsom and secure 47% of the vote against the eventual winner (Today, Newsom is the California Lieutenant Governor; Gonzalez is the city’s chief attorney for the Public Defender).
However, one result of the city’s contrarian progressive streak is electoral reform. In 2004, the city switched to Ranked Choice Voting (or Instant Runoff Voting) for most local races. This year marks the first use of the system for the mayoral race, and it could create difficulties for Hall. Take this article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer:
Ranked-choice, or instant-runoff, voting allows voters to select up to three candidates for a single office. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice selections, the last-place candidate is eliminated and voters who chose that candidate will have their votes transferred to their second-choice candidate – a process that repeats until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. The system has been used in mayor’s races in nearby cities as well as races for other San Francisco offices, including city supervisor.
“San Francisco politics is somewhat of a blood sport, but this mayor’s race is going to show the culture starting to turn,” said Steven Hill, a political reform advocate who ran the successful citywide campaign for ranked-choice voting in 2002. “You win by finding common ground with opponents and building coalitions, and you don’t win by getting into a ‘me-against-you’ situation.”
This creates a double-edged sword for Hall, running an anti-establishment Independent campaign. On the one hand, he can lay claim to many disenchanted voters from all corners of the political spectrum (Hall actually seems to be endorsed by Gonzalez in an example of left-right convergence) as a foe of San Francisco’s powerful Democratic machine. This may give him some strength in the 2nd and 3rd rounds on the ballot as insurgent candidates with less widespread support are eliminated, consolidating disenchanted voters.
However, this also provides a challenge.
Though San Francisco is home to the largest percentage of Asian Americans of any county in the continental U.S., it never had an Asian-American leader until Edwin Lee was appointed interim mayor in January. The appointment energized the Asian-American community, and turnout in November is expected to be high.
Some observers predict the three Asian-American candidates – state Sen. Leland Yee, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting – may form their own slate on the ballot, whether they intend to or not.
“It is likely that the three Asian-American candidates will split the vote on the first counting of rank-choice voting, but the candidate who can skillfully garner the second and third preferences from Asian-American and other voters throughout the city will prevail,” said Don Nakanishi, director emeritus of the UCLA Asian Studies Center.
This idea of ‘teaming up’ illustrates a broader phenomenon. For a candidate to win this race, they will have to effectively pull enough support from the center and the more radical edges of San Francisco politics across lines of identity to emerge as a consensus choice. Hall’s natural constituency are those rough edges; the question is if he can pull in enough of the center and support from strong minority groups in the contest.
For his part, the candidate does not appear worried. As Hall told Luke Thomas in a recent interview:
“I don’t think ranked choice voting hurts my chances at all… The more people that get in the race, the better off I am,” adding, “We have a strategy for that. Obviously if the vote is split in certain areas, it helps me out.”