Karen Bass takes early lead in L.A. mayor's race, poll finds

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 12, 2022 - - Rep. Karen Bass, in blue outfit, is surrounded by constituents and volunteers who are collecting signatures to assure she's on the ballot in June for her campaign for mayor of Los Angeles in Pan Pacific Park on February 12, 2022. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Rep. Karen Bass in Pan Pacific Park on Feb. 12 is surrounded by constituents and volunteers collecting signatures to assure she gets on the mayoral primary ballot in June. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Voters would advance Rep. Karen Bass to the November runoff by a wide margin if the Los Angeles mayoral primary were today, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

About four months from primary day, June 7, who would join her in the runoff is anybody's guess.

Just under a third of likely voters said Bass would be their first choice to replace Mayor Eric Garcetti.

About 40% said they have not decided for whom they want to vote.

None of the other candidates have support above the single-digit level, and a large majority of likely voters said they didn't know enough about them to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion. Results for all registered voters were similar to the likely voter pool.

"This is really a race for second place. It's about who is going to join Karen Bass in the top two," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the IGS poll, who has surveyed voters in California for more than four decades.

"Still you're getting a relatively large chunk of voters with no opinion, and that is to be expected at this point in the race."

Last weekend was the deadline to enter the first mayor's race without an incumbent in nearly a decade — with candidates vying to helm the city as it prepares for the 2028 Olympics and confronts a persistent crisis of homelessness and a lack of housing at prices most residents can afford.

The contest includes more than two dozen candidates, but the most attention has centered around Bass, City Council Member Kevin de León and Rick Caruso, the wealthy real estate developer who entered the race last week.

Candidates have been striving to distinguish themselves from one another and offer a range of strategies for how to solve the city's biggest challenges. The result is a contest that could present voters with their starkest ideological choice since Republican businessman Richard Riordan faced City Council Member Michael Woo in 1993.

Voter turnout this year will probably be considerably larger than in most mayoral elections because of the scale of the problems the city must tackle and because the election coincides with the midterm contests for Congress and the state Legislature rather than being in an off-year as in the past.

Bass starts out with major advantages, including a generally positive image — 42% of likely voters view her favorably and 14% unfavorably. Even she is far from universally known, however. Despite her decades as a public figure, 44% of likely voters said they do not know enough about her to have an opinion.

"Something that is definitely contained in this recognition is she is a bridge builder and that she is someone who has represented in the past many diverse kinds of communities in Los Angeles," said Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, chair of the USC political science and international relations department.

The base of Bass' support comes from areas she has represented, including much of South L.A. and the Westside, according to the poll. Still, Hancock Alfaro noted, when Bass was in the state Assembly, her district included parts of Koreatown and Los Feliz, giving her some connection with voters in those parts of the city.

The anonymity among voters goes much deeper for the rest of the field, despite the fact that they include a City Council member and former president of the state Senate (De León), a second City Council member (Joe Buscaino), the current city attorney (Mike Feuer) and one of the city's wealthiest developers (Caruso).

For each of them, more than 60% of likely voters said they didn't know enough to have an opinion.

In the race to gain name recognition, the biggest opportunity could belong to Caruso, the developer of the Grove shopping center and other high-end properties, who has the wealth to self-finance a robust campaign.

Caruso entered the race last week and this week purchased a seven-figure ad buy on several local television stations and digital platforms, according to his campaign and records from the stations.

In the poll, 64% of likely voters didn't know enough to form an opinion of him, 15% had a favorable impression and 21% had an unfavorable impression.

He starts the race as the first choice of 8% of likely voters, the poll found, tied with De León and slightly ahead of Feuer and Buscaino, each with 4% support.

"I don't think it's a situation where no other candidate has a chance because he has so much money, but it gives him a significant edge," said Lindsay Bubar, a Los Angeles-based political consultant who is working with several local progressive candidates.

"Money isn't going to mean everything because people are really wanting something different. You can pour millions in and talk about all the wrong things," she added. "But no doubt it gives him a huge edge."

But Caruso faces some major hurdles, including his lack of experience in elected office and former Republican affiliation — he shifted his registration from no party preference to Democrat last month.

Asked to identify attributes they considered important in the next mayor, nearly three-quarters of likely voters said prior experience in public office was either very important or somewhat important. Roughly 7 in 10 said being a progressive in politics was either very important or somewhat important to them.

Voters weren't as concerned about the candidates' gender or race. About 4 in 10 said having a person of color as mayor was very important or somewhat important to them, and a similar percentage said it was important for the next mayor to be a woman.

By contrast, just 3 in 10 considered being a political outsider to be an important or very important attribute. Caruso was the first choice among voters who said that was very important to them.

Just over half of respondents said that having a business background was either very important or somewhat important. Caruso was also the first choice among those who rated that attribute as very important.

Political insiders have compared Caruso's bid to Riordan's. But the city's electorate has undergone a major shift since Riordan's 1993 victory.

In the current poll, 61% of likely voters identified themselves as liberal, 24% called themselves moderate and just 14% identified as conservative.

By contrast, when Riordan won, Times exit poll results showed 29% of voters identified as liberal, while 42% said they were moderate and 29% identified as conservative.

Caruso starts the race as the first choice of self-identified conservatives, holding a large lead among the relatively small group who call themselves "very conservative" and edging out Buscaino among those who identify as “somewhat conservative." He’s tied with De León for second place behind Bass among moderates.

Bass dominates among liberals, with De León in second place. She also has support of about half of Black voters, with most of the rest undecided. Bass is one of two Black members of Congress from the Los Angeles region.

Of the top-tier candidates, Caruso is the only one to never have held elected office. He has a long record of work in the city — having served as president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and as a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power commissioner.

Political consultants who spoke to The Times said it was essential for candidates go beyond rhetoric and offer specific plans for how to handle the challenges and crisis Los Angeles faces.

"There are a lot of angry voters, and they're angry about homelessness, and they're increasingly angry about crime. There's also a lot of economic anxiety because of COVID," said political consultant Bill Carrick, who was advising Jessica Lall until she dropped out of the race earlier this month.

Candidates have to use every avenue available to introduce themselves to voters and define themselves and their values on their own terms, Carrick said.

"Everybody is going to have to have a message that deals with homelessness in a way that people respond to positively, and it's not going to be easy" to stand out, he added.

The poll was conducted by email and surveyed just over 2,100 Los Angeles residents who are registered to vote. The 1,446 likely voters were identified based on prior voting history and their stated interest in the June election. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is approximately 3 percentage points in either direction. A full description of the poll methodology is available on the IGS website.

Ample recent polling and focus groups have shown how profound the anger around homelessness is among voters. The city's homeless population has consistently grown since Garcetti was elected, and many of the candidates currently in elected office must figure out how to talk about their experience serving as the crisis worsened, Hancock Alfaro said.

"The systems we have in place are not necessarily doing what they need to do. They're not as effective as they could be in resolving this issue," she said.

"Both progressives and conservatives are coming to consensus that the systems that were designed to address this problem are not working.... [the candidates] are going to have to really think prospectively about how they position themselves almost against the system."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.