In most cases, political geography wins. Most pollsters or seasoned candidates acknowledge that one of the greatest assets a candidate can have is to represent the largest portion of any given electoral district. You see this analysis take place in Congressional races (Ted Lieu's top two finish in a Southern California Congressional race), State Senate races (the upcoming election between Susan Bonilla and Joan Buchanon to succeed Congressmember-to-be Mark DeSaulnier), and Assembly races (Tony Thurmond v. Elizabeth Echols in Assembly District 15 with portions of Contra Costa and Alameda Counties).
When I first ran for the State Assembly in 2004, my district contained the cities of Fremont, Newark, Union City and Milpitas, as well as portions of other cities. A full 70 percent of the district was in Alameda County, with the remainder in Santa Clara County. I came in third place in Santa Clara County, but I was still able to outdistance my four opponents by virtue of my first place finish in Alameda County. Our campaign strategy in large part was to focus primarily on the "Tri-City" area of Fremont, Newark and Union City (65 percent of district), and to constantly remind voters that I had grown up in Fremont and was then the Vice-Mayor of Newark. As a result, I carried almost every precinct in these cities. Despite trailing in all other portions of the District, I won. Parochialism at its best.
In some cases, political geography is trumped by other factors. Take the case of the recent finish of the much-ballyhooed race in the East Bay between Steve Glazer and Tim Sbranti. I realize there were two other candidates for this district, but the real battle in the first round was between these two. In this race, Glazer held the "political geography" advantage by virtue of representing a city in Contra Costa County (Council Member in the City of Orinda), which accounted for roughly 70 percent of the district, while Sbranti represented a city in Alameda County (Mayor of Dublin), which accounted for the remainder.
Allies of Steve Glazer, mostly big business interests, spent over $1.5 million in support of his candidacy. They also spent nearly $400,000 hitting Tim Sbranti. Labor, led by the CTA and SEIU, came to Sbranti's defense, to the tune of roughly $1.8 million. Combined, over $3 million was spent on so-called "independent expenditures" in this race. According to the latest tally by the Secretary of State, all of this money was spent on less than 80,000 voters who actually cast a ballot.
From a distance, it appears that the principal campaign strategy for Glazer, and the independent expenditure that supported him, was to demonize Tim Sbranti because of his "close-ties" to organized labor. In essence, they wanted to make Tim Sbranti look like a labor thug at worse, or a labor patsy at best. The political calculation was that moderate Democrats and independent voters would dislike Sbranti and move into Glazer's column. This approach was also taken in the context of Glazer's main issues -- his opposition to the BART strike, and Sbranti's support thereof, and their respective stances on pensions for public sector employees (Glazer against and Sbranti for).
What this strategy overlooked is this simple fact -- it is very difficult to get voters to hate a schoolteacher and a local, well-respected mayor. Tim Sbranti's reputation is that of a dedicated classroom teacher for many years, who worked at the Oakland Coliseum during A's games to help make ends meet. Regionally he has a reputation as a collaborative mayor who is skilled at consensus building and has lifted Dublin out of the shadows of its wealthier neighbors -- Pleasanton, Livermore and San Ramon. While new housing and development, particularly affordable housing, has been resisted in surrounding communities, Dublin, led by Mayor Sbranti, has embraced more housing at higher densities at various price points. I'm sure that both the Sbranti campaign and his supporters highlighted these qualities.
Despite Glazer's geographic advantage, all of the money spent on his behalf and the best efforts of the pro-Glazer forces to turn Sbranti into a puppet-like, labor-friendly caricature, Sbranti heads into a relatively tough general election against Republican Catharine Baker -- who is also from Contra Costa County. Let's see if political geography wins out in the second round.