Two weeks ago, the race for mayor of San Francisco seemed in the bag. Mayor Ed Lee was so far ahead in most polls that everyone else looked like an also-ran. A Bay Citizen simulation of ranked-choice voting showed Lee getting enough seconds and thirds to emerge easily as the winner. His approval rating with voters was above 70 percent. The money was pouring in to his campaign and to the coffers of independent expenditure committees promoting him.
But that was before the voter-fraud scandals, OccupySF, Sup. John Avalos appearing on national TV, a controversial veto, Sup. David Chiu getting the endorsement of the San Francisco Chronicle, and an attack on City Attorney Dennis Herrera backfiring.
"It's changing," Corey Cook, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco, told us. "I don't know whether it's tightening up, but it's certainly changing."
One campaign consultant, who asked not to be named, was more blunt: "The Lee campaign is one bad news story away from free-fall."
That's not to say Lee is going to lose, or even that he's anything but the clear front-runner. But over the past week, as Lee has taken a series of hits, supporters of the other candidates — particularly Herrera and Avalos — are starting to wonder: Could somebody else really win?
The answer, of course, is yes — anything can happen in the week before an election. But defeating Mayor Lee will take a confluence of events and strategies that starts with a big progressive turnout — and with voters who don't like the idea of an incumbent with ties to a corrupt old political machine carefully allocating their three ranked choices.
So far, there's been no crushing "October surprise" — no single event or revelation that can change the course of the election. And the impact of anything that happens in the next few days will be blunted by the fact that 27,000 absentee ballots have already arrived at the Department of Elections.
By all accounts, Lee's campaign and the somewhat sketchy independent expenditure groups that are working in parallel, if not in concert, have done an impressive job of identifying and turning out absentee voters. Local consultants from most of the campaigns agree that at least 20 percent of the final turnout will be Chinese voters — and Lee will get at least 75 and as much of 90 percent of that vote.
But as Cook notes, there are still "huge undecideds" for this late in a race. And while Lee was polling above 30 percent a few weeks ago, by most accounts his numbers have been dropping steadily. One recent poll shows him falling 10 points in the past two weeks, leaving him closer to 20 percent than 30 percent.
"If the election were held three weeks from now, he'd lose," said one consultant who asked not to be identified by name.
What's happened? A confluence of factors have put the incumbent in a bad light.
The voter-fraud allegations have made headlines and the district attorney is discussing a criminal investigation. Although Lee and his campaign weren't directly involved — the possibly illegal efforts to steer voters to Lee were run by one of the IEs — the last thing a politician wants to see in the waning days before an election are the words "voter fraud" and "criminal investigation."
And the allegation — that Lee supporters in Chinatown filled out ballots for absentee voters then collected them for later delivery — play right into Lee's weakness. While voters generally have good impressions of his work at City Hall, the fact that he's connected to sleazy operators and tied to the old discredited Brown machine continues to haunt him. And this sort of activity simply re-enforces that perception.