Why did Measure S lose so badly?

The LA City Attorney's Office has told Measure S campaigners to stop using a copy of the city seal on its mailers.
The LA City Attorney's Office has told Measure S campaigners to stop using a copy of the city seal on its mailers.
Coalition to Preserve LA

Going into Tuesday's election, opponents of Measure S expressed nervousness about the initiative, which called for a two-year ban on certain types of new construction in Los Angeles. Leading critic Mayor Eric Garcetti predicted this week that the vote would be close.

In terms of raising public awareness, the Measure S campaign had been splashier than the opposition, placing dozens of billboards across the city that read “Yes on S: Save Our Neighborhoods” and sending provocative mailers that drew the ire of city officials.

But in the end, it was anything but a nail-biter. Los Angeles voters resoundingly defeated Measure S, 69 percent to 31 percent, choosing to keep the city on its current path to higher-density development.

"So many people would be severely impacted that I think that's what really did it in from Day One," said pollster Adam Probolsky.

Measure S made enemies quickly, going after developers and council members, who, the campaign said, engage in backroom deals to secure approvals for their projects. The campaign argued a building moratorium would discourage a "pay-to-play" City Hall. 

Housing advocates, business groups and labor unions joined the fight against Measure S because the initiative called for slowing housing production in a city that is hurting for more.

Together, opponents spent more money than the Yes on S campaign, some $8 million to $5 million.

"We just got slammed at the very end by last-minute, huge money and that is very hard to fight,"said Jill Stewart, director of the Measure S campaign. 

Stewart said another major blow came when Gov. Brown spoke out against the initiative in late February.

"We were neck and neck until Governor Brown jumped in and thrashed us in ads," Stewart said.

Internal polling may have showed a tight race, but a survey of 300 voters by Probolsky in February found the opposition was pulling ahead of the Yes on S campaign, and that those who opposed the initiative felt more intensely about it.

"It was essentially a two-to-one scenario of those who definitely said they were voting no, and those  who said they were definitely voting yes," Probolsky said. "That intensity is very difficult to overcome."

Probolsky said there were indicators that those who were undecided were going to vote 'no.' Those respondents against Measure S tended to be Democrats "who make up the lion's share of voters in the L.A," he said. Also, the survey showed that the majority of people ages 55 to 64 — a significant block of engaged voters — disagreed with Measure S.

Ultimately, the Measure S campaign had the harder job to do, said Bill Carrick, a political consultant who worked on the opposition campaign.  

"To get a 'yes' vote you have to make a pretty strong case that you're going to do a lot of good for people's individual lives and not do any harm," Carrick said. 

Carrick said that the Measure S campaign undermined their messaging by sending mailers that city and county attorneys found so misleading they issued cease-and-desist letters.

Stewart said that the Yes on S campaign felt anything but defeated. She said the initiative shed light on the problems at City Hall.

"We lost the election but we won the argument, so now everybody is talking about what do we do next," Stewart said.