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Why did Villaraigosa get shut out of the Governor's race?

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa concedes in the race to be California's next governor on Tuesday, June 5, 2018.
Signe Larsen/KPCC
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa concedes in the race to be California's next governor on Tuesday, June 5, 2018.

Early in the race to become California's next governor, it looked like former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had a good shot of at least advancing to the general election. But he finished in a distant third Tuesday night, ending his campaign.  

Lt. Governor and former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom sailed into the general with about a third of the vote, and Republican businessman John Cox picked up over a quarter of votes. 

But Villaraigosa only captured about 13 percent of the vote. So why didn't a well known Latino politician who led California's largest city for eight years do better in the primary? 

Latino voters didn't put him over the top

Villaraigosa was fighting to become the first elected Latino governor of a state where Latinos make up the single largest ethnic group. But political analysts say Villaraigosa's poor showing suggests he failed to inspire more Latinos to turn out.

In a post-election discussion on KPCC's AirTalk, Caltech political science professor Michael Alvarez said Villaraigosa's campaign tested the notion that a SoCal candidate could get ahead by tapping into a large pool of Latino voters.

"At this point, it looks as if that didn't work well for Villaraigosa," Alvarez said.

Menlo College political science professor Melissa Michelson said Latino turnout tends to be low, and this election doesn't appear to be an exception. 

"I didn't see that Villaraigosa was doing more to get out the Latino vote than the other Democratic candidates, particularly Gavin Newsom," Michelson said. "It could be that Latino voters just weren’t feeling the love."

The Democratic frontrunner strategically elevated a Republican challenger

The rules of California's top two primary can make candidates do strange things. For instance, when the leading Democrat spends money on ads to raise the profile and appeal of a Republican candidate.

But that strategy seems to have paid off for Newsom, who would rather face a long-shot GOP candidate than a better-known Democratic rival like Villaraigosa in November. 

During the primary, Newsom's campaign aired ads that aligned Cox with Donald Trump and the NRA — a turn-off for Democrats, but an implicit message to Republican voters that Cox was their guy.

Newsom's tactic may have encouraged Republicans to rally around Cox, making it harder for Villaraigosa to rise above the fray.

SoCal voters just don't turn out as much as Northern California voters do

This factor may not be unique to this election, but it still didn't help LA's former mayor.

Los Angeles County consistently has lower voter turnout than counties in the San Francisco Bay Area. For instance, in the 2014 June primaries, only 17 percent of registered L.A. County voters cast a ballot, the lowest turnout in the state.

Early results indicate turnout was higher in L.A. County this year. But overall, California's historical turnout patterns tend to give an edge to Bay Area politicians like Newsom and a disadvantage to candidates like Villaraigosa who built their careers in Southern California.