September 17, 2014

Okay. Let’s say you’re sitting in the stands with a friend at a track meet at Cal or Castlemont, or the horse races at the fairgrounds in Pleasanton, and one of the competitors—runner or horse, whichever—has opened up a lead around the far turn. Your friend turns to you and says, “Ten dollar bet the leader gets caught at the finish line.”
What information are you going to take into account before deciding on whether or not to take that bet?
The size of the lead, certainly. But also seeing if the leader is pulling away, holding steady, or has gone out too fast too early and is running out of gas.  And if the rest of the field is catching up, are any of them catching up fast enough to pass the leader at the end? If you’re a smart bettor, it’s only after factoring in all of this information that you decide about putting your money on the line.
In other words, you have to know whether things are progressing or regressing, not just where they currently are, in order to judge where they are likely to end up. And to know whether things are progressing or regressing, you have to know where they’re coming from. It’s a basic principle of physics. Or dialectics. Or simply observing the workings of the world.
And that’s why there should be some caution in judging the results of the recent Jobs and Housing Coalition public opinion poll conducted by David Binder Research in the Oakland mayoral race.

In that poll of a 400 person sample of registered Oakland voters conducted the first week of September, Rebecca Kaplan led the field with 21% of first choice votes (we’ll get to second and third choice votes in a moment) to 17% for Jean Quan, 12% for Joe Tuman, 10% for Libby Schaaf, 9% for Dan Siegel, 7% for Courtney Ruby, and 5% for Bryan Parker. The percentages of the remaining eight candidates were not spelled out in the poll results.
Looking at just those first choice results, how should we judge where the Oakland mayoral race currently stands? Just like in a track meet or a horse race we don’t much other than the fact that Ms. Kaplan has a four percentage point lead over Ms. Quan. We don’t know if that lead is holding steady, or if Ms. Kaplan is pulling away from Ms. Quan and the rest of the candidates or if she has reached her peak popularity and is fading and someone is catching up. That’s because there’s nothing pertinent to compare the latest results with. The last poll in the mayoral race was taken a full four months ago, too long ago to be an effective comparison. Besides that, Ms. Kaplan was not yet a candidate for mayor in early May when the last poll was taken.

Local media outlets pretty much ignored the nuances, however, and just went for the bottom line, with CBS Bay Area, for example, trumpeting that “Kaplan Has Commanding Lead Over Jean Quan” or the Oakland Tribune headlining its own story that in the new poll “Kaplan Whips Jean Quan.”
A four point lead with two months to go in a competitive election, wouldn’t seem to invite descriptions such as “commanding” or “whips” that implied, to some at least, that the race was already practically over. But the local media outlets took that tack almost entirely because in their poll for the Jobs And Housing Coalition, the folks at David Binder didn’t stop at just asking about first choice votes, where Kaplan held that four point lead. Instead they went on to note down the poll respondents’ second and third choice votes as well, and then using that information, ran a simulated ranked choice vote-counting scenario, exactly as it will be run in the actual election on November 4. After going through all the passes and eliminating the bottom candidates one by one, the Jobs And Housing Coalition poll concluded that rather than simply holding a 4 percentage point first choice lead over Ms. Quan and the rest of the field, Ms. Kaplan was actually beating Ms. Quan in a one-on-one contest 61% to 39%.
If that were actually the case, it would indeed be a commanding whipping. But at this particular point the the mayoral race, running a simulated ranked choice voting scenario after taking a voter poll is, frankly, just plain silly, a somewhat meaningless exercise of some employee’s computer programming time.


One of the obvious features of the 2014 Oakland mayoral race is that there is a large collection of credible candidates. With plenty of time left until voting day, many Oakland voters are still sorting through the field to make their picks. The uncertainty gets larger as you pass into second and third choices, which is still a somewhat unique experience. You can confirm that yourself—if you haven’t already done so—by talking to relatives, friends, and neighbors or co-workers. But that relative uncertainty and volatility in the mayoral race also pointed up by the Jobs And Housing Coalition poll itself.

19% of the Oakland voters Binder Associates polled were still undecided about their first choice vote in the mayoral election. That jumped to 32% undecided for third choice. Meanwhile, while all but 6% of the poll respondents had formed an opinion about Jean Quan, and only 22% were uncertain of how they felt about Recca Kaplan, the no-opinion-yet figure rose significantly when you get to the remaining candidates. A third of those polled had not even heard of either Dan Siegel or Libby Schaaf, 43% had not heard of Joe Tuman, and half had not heard of either Courtney Ruby or Brian Parker. Significant numbers had heard of each of these candidates but had not yet made up their minds about them. Therefore it’s anybody’s guess what will happen when, and if, voters learn more about Siegel, Schaaf, Tuman, Ruby, and Parker as folks begin paying more attention closer up to November 4th. The race could end up essentially the same, or it could be radically restructured. It’s anybody’s guess.

The latest Oakland mayoral race poll will have some affect on the mayoral race itself. Some people will see Ms. Kaplan as the front-runner and join her camp of supporters, because all they want is to be with a winner. On the other hand, the poll results may cause Ms. Kaplan to become a target of the candidates, as they see they must tear her down if they want to come out on top, as some of the candidates went after Don Perata in the mayoral race four years ago. But aside from those possible affects, what does that the Jobs And Housing Coalition poll actually show?
All it shows is that Ms. Kaplan has a small lead among the 400 people sampled (we’ll talk at another time about whether that’s an accurate representative sample of Oakland voters). And while it’s certainly better to be ahead than behind at any stage of an election, that lead is hardly “commanding,” certainly not insurmountable. There’s still a long way to go in the Oakland mayoral election. I’m fairly certain even the inner core of the Rebecca Kaplan camp would agree with that.