One of the biggest questions as we come down to just two and a half weeks left in the election is whether Measure A, the Nishi Gateway Project, will be able to become the first project to pass a Measure R vote. That is not a straightforward question – for as much as some claim there are polls floating around, we were not able to come up with one.
Davis is a community where high-powered campaign tactics, as often as not, fail. The previous Measure J elections saw massive advantages for the developers in terms of finances and organization, only to see that Davis is still a community where grassroots activism can overcome these advantages. So the fact that, as of April 23, the developer’s PAC outspent the No side $178,000 to $11,000, is not only not that surprising but also is not a clear advantage for the most part.
For their parts, both sides believe they will prevail. I think there is legitimacy to that view from both sides. Because the Yes side is running a standard campaign – mailers, organized precinct work with voter identification and a somewhat sophisticated GOTV (Get Out The Vote) effort planned for the end – the Vanguard focused this week on understanding more of how the No side is managing to stay in the game, if not outright win.
As far as the Vanguard could glean, the No on A campaign is comprised of perhaps a half dozen to a dozen regulars. The 460 form filed in early May bears out some of the key actors – Alan Pryor, Nancy Price, Pam Nieberg, Bob Milbrodt, Eileen Samitz and Michael Harrington. There is probably another layer of people involved, but it is a surprisingly small operation, compared to either the No on X group or the No on Wildhorse Ranch group.
There is some precinct walking, although the people that the Vanguard spoke with either would not or could not tell us how much they have walked. They have sent out a single mailer. And they have a presence at Farmer’s Market.
Michael Harrington has repeatedly boasted, both on the Vanguard and in other conversations, about the large number of signs that they have been able to give out and get people to put up around town. When asked, given the limited nature of the No on Measure A campaign, how he thinks they will be able to prevail, he said that he felt like there was a pervasive distrust of local government that puts people’s default at No.
He sees heavy enthusiasm at the No on Measure A campaign for his side, and lukewarm for the professional yes side. He believes that there is pervasive anger among the voters that will carry through a No vote, and perhaps by a large margin, just as was the case with Covell Village and Wildhorse Ranch.
And, while there is validity to Mr. Harrington’s view of the electorate, other observers see things a bit differently. Much is often made of things like an enthusiasm gap, and while it is true that a small portion of the population feels passionately about a project like Measure A, and the majority of those who feel real passionately are No voters, it may also be the case that that passionate portion of the population is relatively small.
While the No side is clearly outflanked from the standpoint of a professional and organized campaign, there are areas where we can gauge their relative strength on their own turf. While I personally am not a believer that campaign signs are all that determinative, this is an area where the No side could be dominating, but most observers believe that the distribution is somewhat equal.
In 2009, the Vanguard comment section was dominated day after day by the people who opposed Wildhorse Ranch – some believe that the campaign was at least partially won (or lost, depending on one’s perspective) in that venue. In 2016, while there are passionate voices on both sides, the comments are somewhat evenly split, maybe even leaning slightly towards the Yes side.
In op-eds on both the Enterprise and Vanguard, the pieces seems somewhat evenly split, if not somewhat advantaged towards the yes side. Even the letters to the editor in the Enterprise seem fairly evenly split, and to date there hasn’t been an onslaught.
None of these points are determinative, but our general sense is that, in 2009, the landscape was tilted heavily away from Wildhorse Ranch and this time it feels like the battle is far more even. Now, of course, someone should point out that WHR went down nearly 3 to 1 and a 55-45 victory for No on A would look much more even in comparison – and, point taken.
But my point here is that these are areas where a strong No side that doesn’t have a lot of resources could and perhaps should dominate, and, yet, the Yes side has been able to negate the advantage.
There are therefore two notable variables that will go a long way to determining the outcome.
We know there is a core group of No on Measure A people – many of them are the same actors that have opposed other projects in town. While some of the faces have shifted – Michael Harrington and Alan Pryor were in favor of Wildhorse Ranch, Alan Pryor and Eileen Samitz were in favor of the water project – the core group is relatively defined.
We know there is a core group that will favor all developments – it’s hard to project from the past, but we saw 40 percent of the voters support Measure X and 25 percent support Measure P – but there is a segment of the community who is going to be generally supportive of development.
There are two key groups. The first is the group of people who live in Davis – they will vote, but they are not paying that much attention to municipal affairs, they may not know about the state of finances or even housing shortages in Davis, they may not read the Enterprise or watch council meetings, but they will show up and vote, especially given a still intriguing Democratic Primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. How will these people vote on a housing project?
The other variable is the students. California has seen record registration. Students are energized by Bernie Sanders, but they also came out for the Nishi vote in February and they came out last week for the renters’ ordinance. While some of the activist students have come out against Nishi on the affordable housing issue, it is hard to see a lot of students who are concerned with rental housing costs and quality being opposed to Nishi – a large turnout of students could swing an otherwise close election.
Finally, there is one more card at play. The Yes on Nishi campaign tells the Vanguard that they have already walked almost the entire city and have identified a sizable number of yes voters. They plan to continue that program for the next few weeks and then hope to turn out their vote.
The one real and clearcut advantage that a campaign like Nishi has is the ability to identify voters and get them to the polls. The No side cannot match this organization – they are going to have to rely on the enthusiasm gap and voter skepticism to get their voters to the polls and voting in the right direction.
Some believe that the 2013 Measure I campaign was close and that the voter identification and GOTV efforts pushed them over the top. Can the same thing happen here? That is the big question.
We believe still that this race could go either way. The main advantage right now might be the ability of the Yes side to reach those lesser-informed voters and students and get them to the polls.
—David M. Greenwald reporting