With two days left in the Los Angeles mayor's race, front-runner Karen Bass is fighting to maintain her longstanding advantage as the favorite of the city’s liberal Democratic political base, while businessman Rick Caruso tries to forge a new winning coalition, powered largely by Latinos and residents of the San Fernando Valley.
Both Bass and Caruso now appear to have paths to victory in a contest that Bass had dominated for months, besting Caruso by 7 percentage points in the June primary and surging to a lead of as much as 21 points by late summer. Bass’ advantage had shrunk to just 45% to 41%, within the margin of error, in a poll published by The Times on Friday.
The question that will not be settled until Tuesday’s election — and potentially revealed only after days or weeks of vote counting — is whether Caruso's momentum has plateaued, or will push him into the mayor’s office.
“If you are a Karen Bass person, you are anxious the race has gotten so close, but also grateful that you're standing and still ahead after Caruso has thrown his biggest punches,” said Paul Mitchell, a political data expert who has been closely following the race. “If you’re a Caruso person, you are still hopeful because you have this one last weapon in your back pocket: a $13-million field campaign program that is unprecedented.”
Bass would represent both a continuation of a liberal orthodoxy at City Hall and a historic departure. Like all but one mayor elected in the last half-century, she is a Democratic elected official, serving the last 11 years in the House of Representatives. But she would also be the first woman and only the second Black person to hold the top job at City Hall.
Caruso would mirror former Mayor Richard Riordan in coming from outside the ranks of political incumbents, while also claiming substantial experience at City Hall, as a former member of commissions that oversee the Department of Water and Power and the Los Angeles Police Department. A longtime Republican, Caruso became a Democrat just before declaring his run for mayor.
Bass’ supporters see her route to City Hall as not unlike the one first blazed by Tom Bradley in 1973: melding a base of white liberals, particularly on the Westside and in the heart of the city, with Black voters, abetted by solid showings among Latinos and Asian Americans.
The congresswoman would welcome a virtual repeat of the June primary, reaching the 50% victory threshold merely by adding voters who went with two fellow progressives, City Councilmember Kevin de León and community activist Gina Viola, in the first round.
Caruso intends to upset that equilibrium by effectively expanding the electorate beyond habitual voters — an effort his supporters believe is possible in part because of the record-setting spending from his campaign, which has put up to 400 precinct walkers into the field, largely to galvanize voters who don’t always cast a ballot.
These infrequent voters are critical to the candidate who developed the Grove and Americana at Brand shopping malls. The poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by The Times, showed that Caruso leads narrowly among registered voters, but drops behind Bass when measuring those considered likely to vote.
The closing argument for the 69-year-old Bass positions her as the new leader of the city’s Democratic political mainstream and depicts Caruso as a wealthy interloper, trying to crash the party with his unprecedented $100 million in campaign spending. Speaking outside a Hollywood doughnut shop Thursday, Bass and a voter agreed they would soon deliver a message to Caruso: “You can’t buy this.”
Bass received the endorsement of President Biden and will campaign with Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday. Her final TV ad shows her receiving a warm phone call from former President Obama.
“Caruso has been running something like a case study, which has shown so far that political gravity can be distorted by $100 million,” said Bass campaign advisor Doug Herman. “Election day will be a test of whether political gravity can be defied entirely."
Caruso spokesman Peter Ragone said the candidate has more than proven he is in sync with Democratic Party values. "The race is going to come down to two Democrats. Voters have to decide who is going to solve homelessness, crime and corruption," Ragone said. "It's pretty simple from our perspective."
Bass has emphasized her ability to bring disparate groups together, beginning with her work with Community Coalition, a nonprofit that campaigns for economic opportunity for Black people, Latinos and others. The Times' poll found that likely voters who put a high priority on building coalitions among racial and ethnic groups favor Bass by more than 2 to 1.
In the final debate of the campaign last month, the 63-year-old Caruso made clear he did not want to be pigeonholed as another white candidate. When a Latina debate panelist described him that way, he responded, “I’m Italian.” She agreed, saying with a chuckle, “Italian American.” “Thank you,” Caruso said, “that’s Latin.”
The claim of Latin roots brought mockery from some but acceptance from others, and recent polls have shown Caruso making substantial progress with Latino voters, many of who share his Catholic faith. In a prior Times poll, Bass led among Latinos 35% to 29%, but the new survey, which concluded on Monday, showed Bass losing ground, with just 31% of Latinos supporting her, while Caruso surged to 48%.
Sara Sadhwani, an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College, said Caruso has mounted the kind of serious outreach to Latino and Asian American voters that both communities have demanded for years.
"I don't think it was by accident he said at the debate that he was not white, he was Latin," Sadhwani said. "He is arguing that he understands their struggles in some way, in part with his story about his own family's immigrant roots. Those are messages that resonate very well among many voters."
Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles, said Caruso needs to succeed in "two big what-ifs" — increasing the Latino share of the total electorate from the roughly 21%, where it stood in June, to at least 25% or higher, while also pushing his share of that voting group to 55%. (Latinos represent 37% of the registered voters in the city.)
The "structural" reality that both campaigns acknowledge is that L.A. leans heavily left, with 26% of likely voters in the recent poll declaring themselves "strongly" liberal and 20% "somewhat" liberal.
Bass gets nearly three-quarters of the most liberal and nearly two-thirds of the somewhat liberal voters. Caruso has an even greater lead among self-described conservatives, but they are estimated to make up less than one-fourth of the electorate.
"If you took two generic candidates — a liberal, Democratic female candidate versus a recent Democrat, white billionaire — that should not even be a close race. It could be 70-30 for the liberal," Guerra said. "But if you add the substantial discontent of the electorate and then the $100 million Caruso has to make his case and it becomes close."
Even though he appears to trail slightly, Caruso has found some success with relentless television spots depicting himself as a problem-solving outsider and Bass as a part of the city's failed political class.
More voters said in the recent poll that they believe Caruso would do the best job on two issues that have dominated the campaign — homelessness and crime. Bass persuaded more voters that she would do a better job tackling education, climate change and coalition building.
Some voters have recalled Riordan's 1993 victory over Councilmember Michael Woo as a possible harbinger of the outcome of the 2022 race. And the parallels are not hard to see. Riordan was a 63-year-old resident of Brentwood and a Republican when he beat Woo, a Democrat whose district included Hollywood. Riordan had amassed a fortune as a venture capitalist and served on the city's Recreation and Parks Commission, though he had never run for office before his mayoral win.
Caruso is the same age, also lives in Brentwood and, likewise, is making his first run for office after serving on two commissions under three mayors.
But the makeup of the city and those who vote has changed markedly since Riordan won the first of two terms. White Angelenos accounted for 72% of all voters in Riordan's first election. Black voters then accounted for an estimated 12% of the electorate and Latinos just 10%, though they made up 39% of the population.
In 2022, white people still contribute a plurality of votes in citywide elections; an estimated 48% of this year's vote, according to the UC Berkeley poll. Latino voting power this year stands to easily be more than double what it was in 1993, while the Black voting share has declined slightly and Asian American voters have also increased.
But Riordan's base of Republican voters, who voted more than 90% for him in 1993, has declined from about 30% of the L.A. electorate to an estimated 14% this year. In another flip-flop from the late 20th century: Voting by mail used to be a stronghold for GOP voters, most of whom now favor voting in person, because of claims by GOP stalwarts that mail-in voting is somehow fraudulent.
A final challenge for the Republicans who will make up an outsize share of Tuesday's in-person voters: Rain is forecast for Los Angeles.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.