The Survey USA poll taken on the weekend of July 30-31 has some surprising, and for some candidates deeply troubling, results. The poll’s main message: Ed Lee has a remarkable net-43 favorability rating, and leads the field by 25%. When you consider that Lee is already at 35%, and likely is also the voters’ most popular second choice, his ability to quickly get the 50% necessary to win is clear. While Dennis Herrera, Michela Alioto-Pier, and Bevan Dufty cannot be thrilled at being so far behind at this stage, the poll has positives for each of their campaigns. But Leland Yee suffers from a 13% negative favorability margin, and John Avalos and David Chiu –both of whom first won election in 2008 – are “not familiar” to 32% and 25% of the electorate. Despite Lee’s lead, his rivals are undaunted and the strategy against him is already clear.

The Survey USA poll is just the first of many polls to be taken on the San Francisco Mayors’ race, and some candidates hope it proves an outlier. Nevertheless, the results do confirm some longstanding trends in San Francisco politics.

Candidates With Track Records

As I wrote on January 4, San Franciscans value familiarity. Voters prefer mayoral candidates with long track records in the city, with Matt Gonzalez in 2003 the only exception to this rule since the 1940s. The Survey USA poll confirms this analysis. Alioto-Pier and Dufty – one with the fabled Alioto name, the other in city government since the 1990’s – both polled at 10%, ahead of the perceived one-time frontrunner Yee and Board President Chiu, and equal to Herrera.

Both Chiu and John Avalos are relative newcomers to elective office, and the electorate’s lack of familiarity with them likely reduced their support (Avalos polled at 7%). Chiu’s surprisingly low 4% support level could also be linked to the poll having been conducted solely in English, thereby excluding monolingual Chinese-speaking voters.

But Lee beat Chiu among Asian-American voters in the Survey USA poll by a 31%-8% margin, and Yee by 31%-11% (Avalos got 12%, which may reflect the many Asian-Americans in his district.)

Further, the Singtao Daily polled Asian-American voters in Chinese, Mandarin, Taishan dialect and English from July 13-20 and found that nearly 66% backed Ed Lee, which is 10% higher than his Asian-American support in the English-only poll. Chiu had 6% in the Singtao poll, while Yee had only 3%.

In the Survey USA poll – Herrera, with a long track record as a very high profile City Attorney – has a net 12% favorability, the second highest next to Ed Lee. Herrera’s career path from private attorney to effective city administrator parallels that of Lee – and these poll results appear to show that if Lee had not entered the race, Herrera would have emerged as frontrunner.

The Survey USA poll shows that voters know Leland Yee (only 15% of respondents were unfamiliar with him), but most do not like him. Yee’s 34% unfavorability exceeds the 31% who are neutral and the 21% who have a favorable view.

The Strategy Against Lee

Because the poll shows Ed Lee is known by 91% of voters and liked by 53%, the other candidates have no choice but to try to make Lee less popular. Two strategies have emerged.

First, the San Francisco Chronicle is focused on tarring Lee with ethical violations allegedly related to the “Run Ed Run” effort. This approach appears to be falling short, as the poll was taken after the Chronicle’s front-page story charging the Run Ed Run campaign with ethical violations.

Further, the attacks on the Progress for All campaign to push Lee into the race are targeted not at Lee, but some of his supporters. For ethical issues to hurt Lee, they must connect him personally to abuses.

Second, both the Yee and Herrera camps are arguing that Lee’s broken pledge not to run reflects character defects that should concern voters. Yee issued a video on this issue weeks ago, while Herrera responded to Lee’s filing papers on August 8 by claiming that: “Ed Lee told us he didn’t want to be interim Mayor. But powerful people insisted he do it, so he did. Then Ed Lee told us he didn’t want to run for Mayor. But powerful people insisted he run, and now he is. To my mind, Ed Lee’s biggest problem isn’t that he’s a dishonest man – it’s that he;s not his own man. The fact is, if Ed Lee is elected Mayor, powerful people will continue to insist on things. And I don’t think San Franciscans can be blamed for having serious doubts about whether Ed Lee would have the courage to say no.

But attacking Lee as “not his own man” could be a tough sell. As I explained last week, neither Yee nor Herrera are credible “outsider” candidates. And voters have been deluged with articles claiming Ed Lee is a “puppet” of Willie Brown and Rose Pak, yet they continue to support Lee by an overwhelming margin.

Anybody But Lee

Those misunderstanding the recent Oakland mayor’s race think that an “anybody but Lee” campaign could deny Lee the second place votes needed to reach 50%. In Oakland, two progressives ran an “anybody but Don Perata” campaign in what was essentially a three candidate race that brought Jean Quan victory through second place votes.

San Francisco has a much larger field, and many of the candidates have no reason to back an anti-Ed Lee campaign. For example, why would John Avalos run an “anybody but Lee” campaign when this means pushing candidates who are less progressive than Lee? Alioto-Pier’s main beef is with Herrera (not Lee), Dufty is too gracious to run such a negative campaign, and if David Chiu joins an “Anybody but Lee” effort he should begin looking for a new career after he is defeated for re-election.

Polls show that regular San Franciscans like Ed Lee. A coordinated negative campaign against the popular interim mayor is more likely to backfire than succeed.

Ace Smith will serve as Lee’s campaign consultant. I began extolling Smith’s skills in a 2005 story on his running of Antonio Villaraigosa’s winning Los Angeles Mayor’s race, highlighted his role in Hillary Clinton’s successful 2008 California primary campaign (he also ran Clinton’s effective field campaign in the Texas primary), and described him as “California’s leading campaign manager” in a 2009 article on his running Kamala Harris’ Attorney General campaign. Smith has not been involved in San Francisco politics for some time, but knows the city and is obviously a quick learner.

Bill Barnes, who got his start in San Francisco politics working for Willie Brown and became well known as Supervisor Chris Daly’s aide from 2001-2004, will supervise Lee’s day-to-day campaign. Barnes worked in the Assembly for Fiona Ma before returning to the city to work for Supervisor Alioto-Pier.

The only big remaining question surrounding Lee’s campaign is whether the San Francisco Chronicle will allow Willie Brown to promote Lee in his columns in light of claims that the former Mayor’s role in “Progress for All” prevents this. Something tells me this is not a subject Chronicle reporter John Coté will be addressing in his stories about alleged ethical violations by Lee supporters.