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Newsmakers Poll: Frank and Cathy Lead Pack But Huge Number Unsure in Mayor's Race

Just over two weeks before the election, City Council members Frank Hotchkiss and Cathy Murillo are statistically tied for the lead in the crowded Santa Barbara mayor’s race – but by far the largest portion of voters remains undecided.

That is the bottom line of the Newsmakers Poll, the first independent and professionally produced statistical survey of voters to be published in advance of the Nov. 7 city election.

The poll, designed and funded by the California politics website Calbuzz and conducted for us by Validity Research, is based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 400 registered voters with a recent history of voting who said they already have, or will, cast ballots in the all-mail election.

This is where the candidates stand, according to survey interviews carried out Oct. 18 and 19. The findings have a statistical margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent at the 95% confidence level.

Candidate Percent

Frank Hotchkiss 19

Cathy Murillo 16

Hal Conklin 10

Angel Martinez 9

Bendy White 6

Undecided 40

The four-in-10 undecided factor means the race remains wide open, raising the stakes for messaging, media coverage and the performances of the candidates, as likely voters make up their minds in the next two weeks.

Full analysis below.

The tax vote

At first glance, the large undecided vote might suggest that voters are not paying much attention to the election, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign advertising and considerable news coverage to date.

However, that notion is disproved by the fact that a large majority of voters know about Measure C, expressing considerable certainty about their intentions on the city council-sponsored ballot initiative to raise the sales tax by one cent.

In putting the tax increase on the ballot, the council majority said the $22 million a year to be raised would be targeted for street repair and other infrastructure, although the money could be spent on other programs (our earlier, detailed look at Measure C is here).

When asked about how they plan to vote on Measure C, respondents in the survey answered this way:

Vote on Measure C Percent

Yes 54

No 32

Undecided 14

What poll shows about the mayor’s race

Here are five takeaways about the mayoral poll:

1-Party time. Municipal elections technically are non-partisan affairs -- contests in which potholes and parking have higher priority than political parties. As a practical matter, however, party registration appears to be extremely important in this race.

It is not surprising that Hotchkiss and Murillo are running at the top, because they have the two clearest bases of political support this year: the local Republican and Democratic parties.

Although fewer than one-in-five voters in the city of Santa Barbara are registered with the GOP, Hotchkiss is the only Republican and the only candidate with a conservative track record at City Hall who is running. Martinez has made some in-roads into Frank’s constituency by winning support from key business organizations, but Hotchkiss appears, at this point, to be capturing the bulk of the conservative vote and overcoming Angel’s efforts to inspire widespread defections on the right (for details, see our earlier piece, "Can a Republican Be Elected SB's Mayor?").

On the Democratic side, Murillo won the endorsement of the local party last spring. With fellow Democrats Hal Conklin and Bendy White challenging her for liberal votes, however, she has thus far failed to consolidate Democratic support.

The key party endorsement and her fundraising prowess, however, have helped her assemble the most robust field organization of any candidate – volunteers to walk precincts and make phone calls, and a well-ordered mail-in ballot strategy – potentially a critical tactical advantage in a retail politics campaign.

Ideologically, Murillo also is the most liberal of the Democratic trio, meaning she may be positioned to attract the support of the party’s most active and engaged voters as the campaign moves into its final days.

2-Who’s voting? As of Friday, 4,272 ballots had already been returned, according to Political Data Inc., the voting data firm used by campaign professionals throughout the state. Of these 2,102 are Democratic, 1,249 Republican and the rest are from decline-to-state independents and those registered with third parties.

This suggests considerable interest in the election. Turnout in off year city elections is often low, but these early numbers suggest turnout may well exceed the 38.30 percent of voters who cast ballots in the last mayoral contest in 2013.

The relatively large number of Republican ballots is both good news and bad news for Hotchkiss.

While many members of the GOP are voting - the party's proportion of ballots returned to date is significantly higher than their citywide registration number - it is likely that far more Democratic than Republican votes remain to be cast. This may give some sustenance to the Murillo camp but it also provides hope to Conklin and, to a lesser extent, White. With many voters who favor their brands of liberal politics, they can envision plausible scenarios for victory.

3-The push question. The Newsmakers Poll included an extra question for voters who initially said they did not know who they would vote for:

“If you HAD to say, which candidate are you leaning toward?”

Although the number of voters who then selected a candidate – 38 - is too small to be statistically significant, the answers are of interest, at least to political junkies.

Of the 38, 13 said they would vote for Martinez, suggesting that a fair number of undecideds still see him as a potential mayor; a total of 20 said they’d go for one of the liberal Democrats -- 10 for Murillo, 9 for Conklin and 1 for White -- but only 5 said they would favor Hotchkiss, suggesting that the late deciding vote may not break in his favor.

4-Which way S.B.? In an effort to understand better how likely voters feel about the future of their city as they make their picks, Newsmakers also asked a standard political polling question – do you believe your city is on the right track or the wrong track?

Santa Barbara is on: Percent

Right Track 49

Wrong Track 35

Don’t know 16

The result showing voters relatively satisfied suggests some weakness in the central argument advanced by Martinez, the retired CEO who has spent more money on the race than any of the better-known city politicians. In arguing that the city needs to be shaken up, Martinez has painted a dim, at times almost desultory, picture of Santa Barbara, focusing on the economic difficulties for younger workers who want to live here, and the profusion of street people and the decline of retail on State Street.

5-Debate and endorsements. The candidates already have appeared together in a number of forums, but much attention now will focus on the live debate sponsored by KEYT on Sunday, Oct. 29. It will be not only the sole televised debate of the contest, but also the last best chance for voters to see the candidates on the same stage.

In a race where big endorsements have been scattered – despite the parties’ approval for Murillo and Hotchkiss, former Rep. Lois Capps backs Conklin, Mayor Helene Schneider supports White and the Chamber of Commerce is behind Martinez – it’s also significant that neither the police officers or firefighters associations, which normally provide the most important and impactful local endorsements, chose to back a candidate for mayor.

The last big endorsement out there belongs to the Santa Barbara Independent, many of whose readers look to the liberal newspaper for guidance in local politics. The Indy will announce its pick for mayor in next week’s edition, which publishes Oct. 26.

By the numbers. The Newsmakers Poll was designed in partnership with, the California politics website co-founded and operated by Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine, a veteran political journalist who also was founder and director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University from 2001-09. Validity Research conducted the phone interviews.

The survey sample of 400 voters was drawn from Santa Barbara’s registered voter roll and included only those who cast ballots in the most recent citywide election, plus those who have since registered to vote. The survey’s stratified random sample was designed to reflect the demographics of likely voters.

Respondents were contacted via landline or cell phone last Wednesday and Thursday evenings.


Images: Last image: Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine/Calbuzz.

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