Caruso cuts into Bass’ lead, poll finds, as L.A. mayoral race heads into final weeks

Rick Caruso has made significant strides in the mayoral race, closing much of the gap with Rep. Karen Bass since August, but the billionaire businessman is still in double digits among those most likely to vote.

These results from the latest poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, sponsored by The Times, highlight key dynamics as the mayoral race enters its final weeks:

Bass, supported by most elected Democratic leaders in California, has a powerful influence on her peers, who make up the bulk of the Los Angeles electorate. Caruso, backed by tens of millions of dollars of personal wealth, has a way forward, but one that depends on getting potential supporters who aren’t frequent voters to vote in a mayoral election with few other big draws on the way ballot to appear.

Still, Caruso, whose ubiquitous visage has recently returned to the region’s airwaves, has gained ground from a month ago. Among all registered voters, he is now just 3 percentage points behind, 34% to 31% – within the margin of error of the poll. That’s down from a 12-point gap in August.

However, among likely voters, Bass continues to lead by 15 points, 46%-31%, up from a 21-point margin a month ago.

Determining which voters are likely to vote in an election is a complicated task for pollsters. The Berkeley poll, which was correct in the June primary, defines likely voters as those who voted in the past election in the past and who indicated they are very keen to vote this fall.

These likely voters tend to be older, wealthier, and whiter, and are more likely to be registered Democrats and identify as strongly Liberal than the electorate as a whole.

“The actionable information in a poll comes from likely voters because elections are decided by people who actually vote,” said Bill Burton, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to President Obama who worked on Councilman Joe Buscaino’s mayoral campaign and Bass supports.

The way forward for Caruso, the poll says, and outside analysts agree, is to increase turnout among voters who so far seem less interested in the race.

This includes many Latino voters whose engagement in the race has so far lagged behind other groups. Caruso and Bass are just below Latino voters, while Bass has a large lead among black voters — she is one of only two black members of the Los Angeles congressional delegation — and among white voters.

Caruso has plenty of potential support among voters who have voted in at least some previous elections but whose interest in the race has been too small for pollsters to classify them as likely voters. Angelenos, who had voted in at least one previous election and said they were only moderately interested in voting, favored Caruso over Bass by 33% to 14%, with about half undecided. A similar range was seen among respondents who indicated that they had a low level of interest in voting.

Caruso brings several key assets to efforts to engage those voters: He’s expected to spend at least $20 million on television advertising this fall, according to data from media-tracking firm AdImpact. He has also invested heavily in a publicity and door knocking campaign aimed at mobilizing less engaged voters. These operations are heavily focused on communities that are predominantly Latino — like Boyle Heights and the eastern San Fernando Valley.

Working against him is a history of relatively low turnout in local elections and a lack of other compelling races on the ballot. Although there are several contentious congressional elections in the area, none are held in the city of Los Angeles and most statewide races in California do not appear to be competitive.

“I don’t think there is any reason for anyone to appear in this election that will not inherently appear in this election. What I mean by that is, if you don’t always vote, don’t come,” said Orange County pollster Adam Probolsky, who does extensive work in the city, including polling the mayoral election and research for opponents of a property sales tax levied on the voting will stand in November. Proceeds from this proposed tax, which Caruso opposes and on which Bass has not commented, would primarily fund the construction of housing for the homeless and poor Angelenos.

Latino voters show a wide gap between those who are in the running and those who aren’t. Bass leads 36% to 29% and is rated better by voters with Latino potential; With the broader pool of all registered Latino voters, Caruso leads at 34% to 25% and has slightly higher favor.

A similar phenomenon is playing out in the populous San Fernando Valley, where Bass and Caruso are essentially level on likely voters at 41 to 40 percent, but Caruso leads on registered voters by a dozen points, 40 to 28 percent. In August, registered voters in the Valley preferred Caruso by just 2 points.

Not only is Caruso reminding people he’s up for election and getting his supporters to vote, but he has also begun relentlessly attacking Bass on the air and on the internet — for a scholarship she’s getting to attend the School of Social Work at the USC received, and for a speech she gave at a Scientology event more than a decade ago. Bass has hit back in her own publicity, attempting to link Caruso to the college admissions bribery scandal that occurred while he was on the board of USC.

The current poll began polling voters when Caruso began his campaign barrage. This attack seems to have affected Bass’ image in at least some key parts of the city.

In August, 61% of Westside registered voters had a favorable opinion of Bass. That number has dropped to 43% in the latest poll, with 27% saying they have a negative opinion and 30% saying they have no opinion.

Citywide, Bass is favorably rated by 53% of likely voters and 40% of registered voters. Only a quarter of voters in both categories have a negative opinion of her.

“The negative publicity has to have some effect there,” said Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Berkeley IGS, who has been polling California voters for decades.

“When people change their mind about a candidate, it usually happens in two stages. It doesn’t go from “I like her” to “I hate her”. It goes from ‘I like her’ to ‘I’m not sure,’ and there we are with the overall electorate – on the Westside anyway.”

Despite the decline in favor, the poll found that voters viewed Bass as more honest, ethical and experienced than Caruso, while the businessman was viewed as more fiscally responsible.

Bass has focused on building her strength among Democrats and Liberals — emphasizing her history as a pro-choice advocate and characterizing her opponent as an interloper who only became a Democrat to run for mayor.

Caruso had been a Republican for most of his adult life. He says he switched parties because the GOP was getting too extreme. He insists he supports abortion rights and has always done so, although he has funded anti-abortion advocates in the past, including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican Senate leader.

Even with Caruso’s $62 million campaign spend and heavy investment in voting, the composition and demographics of those who show up on election day, or the emails on the ballots, speak strongly for Bass.

Among registered voters who are Democrats, Bass leads by about 25 percentage points, and among likely voters who are registered Democrats, she leads by nearly 40 points. This advantage in the city’s largest block of voters has existed since the primary.

However, one issue that could potentially rock the race is homelessness, Probolsky said. Anger over the issue could bring infrequent voters to the ballot box, he said.

The poll found voters feel homelessness is having an impact on their lives and believe the mayor has the ability to do something about the crisis. Among likely voters, 91% said homelessness directly or indirectly affects their lives, and 55% said the mayor can make a big contribution to solving the crisis. Another 30% said the mayor could only play a minor role in solving Los Angeles’ homelessness problem.

Bass has put forward a plan to bring 15,000 people indoors, trying to squeeze as much as possible out of the current system to expand temporary and permanent housing.

This is a much smaller scale than Caruso imagines. He wants to build 30,000 transitional apartments in his first year in office. To realize this expensive plan, he wants to build tiny houses for 15,000 people and house another 15,000 people temporarily in “sleeping pods” in existing structures such as warehouses and vacant buildings.

Caruso continues to be vocal about the issue, trying to link Bass to the political failures of previous governments and the growing number.

For voters, “there’s no reason for me to show up in this election unless I’m passionate about always voting — with one caveat, and that’s homelessness,” Probolsky said.

“If that’s all he’s been talking about so far [election day]he could possibly get some of those people to actually show up.

The Berkeley IGS poll was conducted Sept. 22-26 among 1,688 Los Angeles-registered voters, of whom 1,349 were considered likely to vote in the November election. The sample was weighted to match census and voter registration benchmarks. Because of the weighting, accurate estimates of the margin of error are difficult, but the results are estimated to have a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points in either direction for the full sample of registered voters and 4 percentage points for the likely sample of voters. Caruso cuts into Bass’ lead, poll finds, as L.A. mayoral race heads into final weeks

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