‘Lack of Ground
He attributed his finish to the luck of the Irish, and called the 169-vote margin a landslide, but Superior Court Judge Dick Murphy knows well that it was grass-roots campaigning that helped him secure a runoff spot in the November race for San Diego mayor.
After a final count of late absentee ballots last week, Murphy edged out former banker Peter Q. Davis for second place in the March 7 primary. He now faces off against Supervisor Ron Roberts, who took first place and nearly 26 percent of the vote.
The final tally for the second spot was Murphy, 41,874 votes, or 15.68 percent, to Davis’ 41,705, or 15.62 percent. Given that Davis’ campaign spent in excess of $1.3 million, it meant the former banker shelled out a little more than $30 for each vote.
With that kind of record spending, pollsters and analysts predicted Davis to finish either No. 1 or No. 2. Yet in the wake of Murphy’s victory, they noted Davis’ lack of any grass-roots campaign and his near total reliance on television ads.
“He had no ground game, and in local politics, as opposed to what happens on the national and statewide level, you win or lose on the ground,” said John Nienstedt, president of Competitive Edge Research, a San Diego political polling firm.
In contrast, Murphy assembled a large group of hardcore supporters and had them making phone calls, walking neighborhoods and handing out literature.
Murphy’s message, and style, appealed to voters who were dissatisfied with the current leadership at City Hall, but were also looking for someone with real-world experience, Nienstedt said.
For voters fed up with career politicians and looking for an independent change agent, the most likely candidates were Davis or Murphy, Nienstedt said.
Roberts was a city councilman for seven years before being elected to the county Board of Supervisors in 1994. The remaining top candidates , Barbara Warden, George Stevens and Byron Wear , are current members of the council.
Davis projected a slicker, more successful image, while Murphy’s persona of a tough, law-and-order judge came off as more genuine, Nienstedt said.
As evidence of just how close Davis and Murphy are in their stands following the final vote count last week, Davis threw his support behind Murphy.
Despite his apparent underdog status, Murphy isn’t conceding the election.
“Almost 75 percent of the voters did not vote for Ron, so I think the race is up for grabs,” he said.
Murphy said it was his “unique background” of working in both the private sector for a bank and as an attorney, and his public service on the council and as a judge that attracted a good number of voters.
Added to that were the issues he considered important: traffic congestion, controlled growth, and enhancing the city’s neighborhoods.
Enough voters probably got his primary message that the city needs someone “who understands how to read contracts, negotiate a contract, and make smart business decisions,” he said.
But it was Murphy’s clear move to the right that helped him stand out from the pack and get him into the runoff, said Nienstedt.
Murphy endorsed Proposition 22, which banned same-sex marriages, and took out ads in a couple of Christian papers to publicize that stand.
In contrast, Davis originally came out against the measure, and later backtracked, saying he was against gay marriages but supported gay weddings.
That issue was one of the few that separated Murphy and Roberts, who came out against the measure. Both men are Republicans who have formerly served on the City Council and espoused fairly similar approaches to such key issues of traffic congestion, infrastructure investment, the ballpark and increased neighborhood services.
Indeed, those stands are so similar, the mayoral campaign may end up as a personality contest, and could dissolve into mudslinging, Nienstedt said.
The tone was set early on when Murphy brought up Roberts’ support of the area’s building industry. Roberts’ campaign shot back that during Murphy’s time on the council, he was also a big recipient of developers’ contributions.
This race could depend on which candidate is more adept at how he characterizes his opponent, Nienstedt said. For Roberts, he’ll likely try to paint Murphy as a right-wing conservative, while Murphy is going to paint Roberts as a professional do-nothing politician, he said.
In the end, money may be the deciding factor, and Roberts definitely has more of it. He spent about $650,000 for the primary, and could match that amount if necessary, said Steve Danon, his campaign manager.
Murphy said he spent about $250,000 on his primary and isn’t sure what he’ll need for the general election, but whatever it is, it will probably be much less than Roberts spends.
Despite that, Murphy has a good chance for an upset, and a lot can happen between now and Nov. 7 to alter the expected outcome, Neinstedt said.