A week before San Diego's special election for mayor, two 20-year-old City College students walk the streets of Sherman Heights, holding clipboards and fliers. They've spent the last three weeks getting out the vote in Latino neighborhoods.
Knocking on a door, volunteer canvasser Daniel Isidro greets a resident in Spanish and asks whom he's going to vote for.
"I'm still indecisive," says Ricardo Canao, a 25-year-old San Diego native. "I'm still in the middle. I'm still going through all of their backgrounds."
Isidro nods affably and reminds Canao that City Councilmember and candidate for mayor David Alvarez grew up nearby in Barrio Logan: "We need a homegrown mayor—not only a mayor that looks like us but somebody from this area."
When pressed, Canao says he has no intention of voting for Alvarez's opponent, City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer. However, he hasn't decided whether he'll vote at all.
"I'm not saying I won't vote for Alvarez," Canao says. "The thing is, I'm still deciding if to vote for him or not to vote. Last election, I voted for [former Mayor Bob] Filner, and then we know what happened with him."
Canvasser Teresa Irizarry says that almost all of the Latinos she talks to support Alvarez. However, she's not sure how many will actually turn out to vote.
"Some of these people that are very excited have voted maybe twice [in their life], so I'm, like, It's really important to get out there and let your voice be heard,'" she says.
Working with the Environmental Health and Justice Campaign, these young advocates have embraced a strategy that targets what could be the most important factor in the Tuesday, Feb. 11, special election.
The next mayor of San Diego will likely be determined by whether the city's increasingly influential Latino voting bloc turns out on Election Day, according to a citywide study of Hispanic voters.
In recent weeks, a number of election polls have found somewhat conflicting results. According to the most recent survey paid for by Democrats, Alvarez has a razor thin lead, 46 percent to 45 percent. A U-T San Diego / 10 News poll found Faulconer in the lead, 49 percent to 44 percent.
However, the polls in San Diego share a significant flaw, said University of Washington political-science professor and author Matt Barreto. "None of the other polls in the city have done any of their interviews in Spanish."
Barreto, who in 2007 co-founded Latino Decisions, a group of researchers who specialize in polling and studying Latino communities, recently examined San Diego's race for mayor.
About 75 percent of Latinos support Alvarez, compared with only 10 percent for Faulconer, according to Barreto's polling data, which included 400 likely Hispanic voters and offered surveys in English and Spanish.
That's a noticeable difference from the poll paid for by Democrats, conducted by Public Policy Polling, which found Alvarez had support from 63 percent of Latino voters and Faulconer from 28 percent.
There's an even more striking discrepancy between the Latino Decisions poll and the U-T San Diego / 10 News poll, which found that only 52 percent of Latinos favored Alvarez, with 38 percent supporting Faulconer.
"All the other polls are robo polls, and we know that with populations with immigrant communities, even if they can do it in English, they're just not as familiar with that sort of technology," Barreto said. "They hang up on it more often."
Final results from the November primary election contradicted an earlier U-T San Diego / 10 News poll, which predicted candidate Nathan Fletcher would beat Alvarez, 24 percent to 22 percent. In the end, Alvarez beat Fletcher, 27 percent to 24 percent.
With the Latino community representing roughly one in five registered voters and composed of high concentrations of Spanish-only speakers, many surveys in the city are undoubtedly "skewed," Barreto said. "If all the polls have it at a dead heat, and they don't have good Latino samples, to me that means that Alvarez is going to win by three or four" percentage points.
However, that's only if the Latino community turns out in significant numbers, he added. "Traditionally, it is true that Latinos have comparably lower rates of turnout. The biggest reason is that it becomes a cycle where candidates look at their voters and say these voters turn out at low rates, so I'm not going to go to that neighborhood."
Only 37 percent of surveyed Latino voters said they had been contacted by a campaign or candidate asking them to vote, according to the Latino Decisions survey.
Being a single-issue special election held on short notice, weak turnout citywide wouldn't be surprising. In the November primary, only 35 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, according to data from the county Registrar of Voters. The lowest turnout was in Alvarez's own predominantly Latino District 8, at about 27 percent.
Neither the Alvarez campaign nor its biggest supporters were willing to discuss their specific strategy for voter outreach in Latino communities.
"Our field folks aren't comfortable commenting on that right now," said Samantha Peterson, spokesperson for the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council.
The Latino vote is "important," but it's part of a greater effort, said Stephen Heverly, spokesperson for the Alvarez campaign. "We've got organizing projects that are happening all throughout the city in African-American neighborhoods, in East African neighborhoods, in Asian-American / Pacific Islanders neighborhoods and Latino neighborhoods."
Voter outreach to the Latino community can be challenging, said Franco Garcia, field coordinator with the Environmental Health and Justice Campaign. "We have a high population of people that are not accessible by phone. What we've been doing on this campaign is knocking on doors.
"One message that has connected with people is that regardless of who they vote for, get out to vote," he added. "People are seeing the importance of that. When our neighborhood gets out to vote, they have to pay more attention to us."
While several factors suggest turnout could lag, the chance to elect San Diego's first Hispanic mayor might prove a powerful incentive to voters. About 73 percent of Latinos polled said it was somewhat or very important that the city elect its first Latino mayor, according to the Latino Decisions survey.
"When you have the first Latino that runs, there's usually a big boost in turnout," Barreto said. "Alvarez is really a strong ethnic candidate, meaning he's well-connected in the Latino community. He's from the community and is seen as very authentic."
The chance to elect the city's first Latino mayor has resonated with Hispanic voters, said Carmen Lopez, coordinator of Latino outreach for the Registrar of Voters. "They're more excited because a lot of limited-English speakers, as well as young folks, are interested because there happens to be a Latino that's running and someone who comes from poverty, and they can identify with that."
As of last month, voter registration for Latinos reached about 120,000 residents, up from about 94,000 residents in 2011, according to data from the Registrar of Voters. There are roughly 667,000 registered voters citywide.
The influence of Latino voters could surprise people in this election, said Diane Takvorian, executive director with the Environmental and Health Justice Campaign.
"Over the years, many Latinos have not been eligible to vote, but now, because they are gaining citizenship and their children were born in the U.S., the Latino voter population has really grown."
At the same time, the community is poised to continue to increase its voting rolls because of its young population. While about one in five voting-age residents are Latino, that jumps up to almost one in three when you look at the entire population.
Even if Alvarez doesn't win, he could be poised to run a strong campaign in four years, Barreto said. "Given the partisan differences, I would suspect that he would want to have a rematch."