A political candidate who forms coalitions, touts other candidates vying for the same office and brags about being somebody's third choice?
Yes, it could happen - and it's an increasingly likely campaign strategy under the Bay Area's relatively new and somewhat perplexing system of ranked-choice voting, supporters and opponents agree.
The mayor's races in Oakland and San Leandro and two supervisors' races in San Francisco all saw the candidate with the most first-choice votes ultimately lose - demonstrating the traditional campaign style doesn't always work anymore.
"The old style was it's you against me, mano a mano," said Steven Hill, the architect of the local ranked-choice voting system.
"You can now try to build coalitions around these ranked ballots by finding common ground with other opponents."
Under ranked-choice voting - started in San Francisco in 2004 and used in Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro for the first time this year - voters pick their first, second and third choices.
If nobody wins more than half the vote, last-place candidates are eliminated and their second and third place votes are redistributed until someone wins a majority.
Former state Sen. Don Perata beat Oakland City Councilwoman Jean Quan in first-choice votes for Oakland's mayoral race 35 to 24 percent, but wound up losing by a two-point margin when second- and third-place votes were counted.
In San Leandro, Mayor Tony Santos won the most first-place votes in his bid for re-election, but lost his seat to challenger Stephen Cassidy.
San Francisco's case
Similar scenarios played out in the race for two seats on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Janet Reilly won the first place count in District Two, but new ranked-choice voting tallies released by the Department of Elections on Monday showed Mark Farrell winning the seat.
In District 10, an eye-popping 21 candidates ran for the seat, with Lynette Sweet getting the most first-place votes. However, Malia Cohen, initially far behind, won the seat because she was the second or third choice of voters for many of her fellow candidates.
Hill said these kinds of partnerships between candidates, as well as promoting a fellow candidate or political group's second or third pick, will all become more common.
David Latterman, a political consultant who opposes ranked-choice voting, agreed but said that doesn't mean elections will be all sunshine and rainbows. He said Perata lost in Oakland largely on the "Anybody but Don" mantra of Quan and fellow candidate Rebecca Kaplan.
"They bludgeoned Perata. It was a friend-of-my-enemy thing," Latterman said. "I think you're going to see more second-tier candidates try to team up."
A diluted message
David Lee, a political science lecturer at San Francisco State University, said candidates will try to become the second or third choice of so many challengers, their platform may become diluted.
He gave the example of the San Francisco mayor's race in November, 2011 - the first time ranked-choice voting will be used in a competitive mayors' race in the city.
A straight, white, moderate candidate could try to woo Chinese voters by becoming state Sen. Leland Yee's second choice, woo gay voters by becoming Supervisor Bevan Dufty's second choice, and woo lefties by becoming the second or third choice of a number of progressives expected to enter the race.
"How do you appeal to all those voters in order to earn their second or third choices?" Lee asked. "Who are you at the end of the day?"
Mayor Gavin Newsom said ranked-choice voting "could dramatically change the face of the mayor's race."
And he said that's not necessarily a good thing because voters - including himself - remain confused by the system. He said that as a District Eight voter, he voted for the same candidate for supervisor three times. "Then they said you can't do that," he said of a poll worker.
Corey Cook, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco, said this election season's outcomes will shape ranked-choice voting in the future - perhaps by angering enough people so they try to dismantle it.
"We don't know yet whether it will change the strategy for campaigns or whether this is ultimately going to be the unwinding of the movement," he said. "Both outcomes are possible."
Heather Knight at email@example.com.
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