Boosting Villaraigosa's chances were an army of at least 2,500 union volunteers--although union members were split between the candidates overall--and those entranced by the former legislator's optimistic promise to build a new, multi-ethnic leadership in Los Angeles.
Overall, turnout in the city was running higher than in 1993, the last time there was a mayoral race without an incumbent.
In Hahn, 50, the city chose a politician whose family has held elective office in the city for half a century. To some observers, he represented the "old" Los Angeles, one politically dominated by white candidates elected by the overwhelmingly white electorate.
In Villaraigosa, 48, voters could have chosen a onetime high school dropout and union organizer who rose to become one of the state government's top politicians. Some analysts said he exemplified the emergence of the "new" Los Angeles--charged by progressives and union power, and flavored by the increasing influx of Latino voters.
The contest to become the first mayor elected in the 21st century had grown increasingly bitter in its final days, with a Hahn television ad charging that a 1996 letter by Villaraigosa to the White House on behalf of a cocaine trafficker proved that he could not be trusted. Villaraigosa hit back by saying that Hahn was attempting to create a "climate of fear" by depicting him with images of drugs and a smoking crack pipe.
With Villaraigosa reaching for history, the issue of ethnicity crept onto talk radio and some Web sites and into numerous conversations on election day. The two candidates, however, only addressed the issue obliquely.
A Times exit poll found that the candidates did well, predictably, among their bases. Hahn maintained a more than 3-1 advantage over Villaraigosa among African American voters, who made up about 16% of the electorate Tuesday and were rewarding the city attorney for the decades of service to their community by his late father, county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. The candidate built on that base by winning a solid majority of moderates and securing about seven in 10 conservatives and Republicans.
Tellingly, Hahn won a majority of the voters who had chosen three of the other serious contenders in the April 10 election--businessman Steve Soboroff, Councilman Joel Wachs and state Controller Kathleen Connell. Villaraigosa only bested his rival among those who voted for another Latino, Rep. Xavier Becerra, in the first round of the mayor's race.
Villaraigosa, in contrast, benefited from the continuing growth of the Latino voting base, which composed about one-fifth of the electorate, or roughly three times its heft in 1993. Those voters went 4 to 1 for the candidate who grew up in City Terrace.
The emotional push to elect the first Latino in more than a century also drew support from liberals of other ethnic backgrounds, with nearly one-third of voters overall saying it was important to them that the next mayor be Latino, the Times exit poll found.
Villaraigosa was able to keep the outcome in doubt election night because of the shifting face of the electorate. The share of voters identifying themselves as liberal increased to a majority, 51%, compared to the 47% in the April vote. Many conservatives, meanwhile, appeared to shun the choice between the two liberal Democrats--and their percentage of the vote dropped to 21% from the 26% they represented in the first round of the mayor's race, the Times poll found.
Liberals voted nearly 2 to 1 for the former American Civil Liberties Union leader and union organizer, Villaraigosa.
Helping Hahn out, however, was his substantial lead in the absentee balloting. He won nearly twice as many absentee votes as his opponent--dropping Villaraigosa nearly 30,000 votes behind as the first vote-by-mail results began to flash across television screens.
Cal State Fullerton professor Raphael Sonenshein said Villaraigosa's massive get-out-the-vote effort on election day may have been trumped by Hahn's edge in voting by mail. Villaraigosa's "election day strategy worked, but his election strategy didn't," said Sonenshein, who worked as a consultant to the Times exit poll.
But Villaraigosa's frenetic campaigning in the final 48 hours before election day signaled his campaign's belief that it could make a late comeback--a stark contrast to Hahn's self-assured and laid-back stance in the race's final hours.
Hahn knocked off campaigning before sundown Monday after less than half a dozen stops around the city, while the ebullient Villaraigosa raced from the Valley to the harbor area and back to the central city--even stepping behind the grill at "world famous" Pink's hot dogs late Monday.
After a prayer session with supporters at his Mount Washington home after midnight, Villaraigosa slept for just two hours and was back on the streets pumping hands just after sunrise. He greeted dozens of voters, his raspy voice giving out almost entirely.