Just days before the primary election to pick Los Angeles’ next mayor, candidates Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel appear locked in a dead heat to advance to the runoff election in May, according to results of a new USC Sol Price School of Public Policy/Los Angeles Times Los Angeles City Primary Poll.
LA City Councilmane Garcetti and City Controller Greuel garnered support from 27 percent and 25 percent of voters, respectively.
Fifteen percent of voters favored talk radio host Kevin James, the sole Republican candidate, and 14 percent of voters supported LA City Councilwoman Jan Perry. Former technology company executive Emanuel Pleitez came in fifth with 5 percent.
But roughly half of the voters who chose either Garcetti or Greuel said they still might change their vote before Tuesday’s election.
“This is as close to a dead heat as you’re going to find in politics,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Price/LA Times Poll and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “After millions of dollars in ads and more than 40 debates, none of these candidates has made a strong impact on the overall electorate.”
Voters gave the highest favorability rating to Garcetti, with 54 percent who said they had a favorable view of him and 26 percent who said they felt unfavorably toward him. Greuel’s favorability rating was 51-to-25, Perry 44-to-24 and James 26-to-20.
Forty-seven percent of voters said they felt favorably about outgoing LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and 44 percent said they had an unfavorable view of him.
Latino voters overwhelmingly favored Garcetti (37 percent) to Greuel (19 percent). Support for Garcetti and Greuel, who would be the city’s first female mayor if elected, was nearly identical among men and women.
When asked about their second choice for mayor, voters seemed similarly conflicted, with 26 percent saying they “don’t know.” Greuel got 22.6 percent of second place votes, Garcetti 22.5 percent, Perry 17 percent and James 5 percent.
Amy Levin, vice president of Democratic polling firm Benenson Strategy Group, who conducted the poll with Republican polling firm M4 Strategies on behalf of USC Price and the Los Angeles Times, noted that many Garcetti supporters went to Greuel, and vice versa, when asked about their second choice for mayor.
“The dynamic of Garcetti versus Greuel in the press doesn’t spill over to the voters. We’re not really seeing any evidence of that animosity in the electorate,” Levin said.
A majority of voters — 54 percent — said they prefer a mayor who has experience in LA elected office and understands how City Hall works, as opposed to 37 percent who favored a mayor who is “not a career politician and brings a fresh, real-world perspective.”
“It’s striking that even while every single one of the candidates is running as an outsider — to one degree or another — Los Angeles voters have made it very clear they want someone who understands how City Hall operates,” Schnur said.
When asked about the top two issues facing Los Angeles’ next mayor, voters overwhelmingly pointed to economic troubles facing the city.
Twenty-six percent of voters said “getting the city’s budget under control” was the top issue, followed by 18 percent who said “job creation” and 17 percent who said “improving schools.”
Voters said they would favor an equal mix of budget cuts and tax hikes to close the city’s projected $216 million budget deficit. Forty percent said they favored this approach, as opposed to 31 percent who said city leaders should balance the budget by spending cuts only and 4 percent who said the problem should be solved by tax hikes only.
“This is a pocketbook election,” said Chris St. Hilaire, CEO of M4 Strategies. “In the runoff election, it’s really going to be about who can present the best balanced budget plan that doesn’t rely only on tax increases.”
A second companion poll surveyed 181 potential LA City Primary voters online. Pollsters showed voters television advertisements for Garcetti, Greuel and James, and rated candidate’s favorability before and after viewing the ads.
An ad called “Which?” from an independent committee supporting James was found to be the most polarizing, according to the poll. Before viewing the ad, 30 percent of voters had a favorable impression of James and 18 percent felt unfavorably toward him. After viewing the ad, 47 percent of voters said they felt favorably and 53 percent said they felt unfavorably about James — a 35 percentage point increase in unfavorability.
“It draws in some people, people who want an outsider or big radical change,” Levin said. “But it turns off as many or more with its over-the-top tone and negativity, and its lack of any meaningful introduction of James.”
However, Schnur points out that unlike the two frontrunners, the goal of James’ supporters was to force voters to reevaluate their options rather than reinforce their likely decisions.
“Because James is running several points behind in the polls, his backers made the decision that they needed a more confrontational and more polarizing message,” Schnur said. “We’ll find out on Tuesday whether their risk paid off.”
Garcetti’s ad “Proven” made him more relatable to voters, the poll showed. The number of voters who felt Garcetti “cares about people like me” jumped by 10 percentage points after viewing the ad. His overall favorability jumped by 16 percentage points.
Greuel’s “Every Child” ad gave her an 18-point bump in favorability ratings, from 52 percent before voters viewed her ad, compared to 70 percent after.
The USC Price/LA Times Poll was conducted Feb. 24-27 by M4 Strategies and Benenson Strategy Group on behalf of the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Los Angeles Times. The full sample carries a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.