A recent TV ad for Kevin James lifted the percentage of those with a positive… (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles…)
Mayoral candidate Kevin James clawed his way into the thick of the race for mayor of Los Angeles, but a harsh TV ad last month turned off twice as many voters as it won over, according to a USC Price/Los Angeles Times online survey.
That reaction contrasts strongly with viewers' feelings about more upbeat ads for front-runners Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, the survey found.
The James ad, financed by the independent group Better Way L.A., blames the three sitting politicians running for mayor — City Controller Greuel, Councilman Garcetti and Councilwoman Jan Perry — for the city's "loss of services, crumbling streets" and "bankruptcy."
The 30-second spot features grim music, black-and-white mug shots of the elected officials and an ominous voice-over. The ad ends with color images of a smiling James and a sunny declaration that only he can make things better.
The ad's message lifted the percentage of those with a positive view of James from 30% to 47%, but it also drove up the group with a negative opinion from 18% to 53%, the survey found.
"It's clear from the results how polarizing the James ad is," said Amy Levin, a vice president for Benenson Strategy Group, a Democratic firm that conducted the online survey jointly with the Republican company M4 Strategies. "It draws in people who want big, serious, radical change, but it turns off more people with its negative tone and in not demonstrating what kind of mayor he would be."
Political candidates typically try to open and close their campaigns with positive television ads. But James, 49, a first-time candidate, could not afford television and has relied on the independent committee, which had spent almost $900,000 through Wednesday. Republican ad man Fred Davis, organizer of Better Way L.A., has a reputation for biting messages.
The survey companies showed one ad each from Garcetti, Greuel and James to 181 likely voters and sought their reactions online. The exercise does not mimic real-world conditions, since voters view TV spots haphazardly and probably have seen more messages from the better-funded Greuel and Garcetti campaigns.
The James ad turned off even some voters who would seem to be likely supporters, according to follow-up interviews conducted online by iModerate, a market research company.
One 41-year-old Republican called the attack on the other candidates "very distasteful." A Democrat said the ad's ominous tone made it seem like a "joke ... as if the world will end and he is our only hope."
Those who liked the ad included a 26-year-old man, a Democrat, who said James "confirmed what I thought about him as a candidate: that he will attack the important issues of taxes [and] business growth."
Those who liked Garcetti's ad tended to appreciate his moderate tone and practical focus.
"I like how he mentioned getting back to the basics," said one 32-year-old, who described himself as a "strong" Democrat. "Fix the potholes all over L.A., keep programs open, schools, and keep our kids safe. Others mention the same things. But his tone is key in distinguishing him from the rest."
The Greuel ad resonated with those who favor a tough stance toward waste at City Hall.
A 44-year-old woman who was leaning toward Greuel liked her talk about cutting "freebies" for city employees. "She is [taking] action and cutting back on employees that have had it too good for too long for no reason," said the voter.
The 181 likely voters were surveyed during the last five days of February in conjunction with the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy/L.A. Times Los Angeles City Primary Poll. Twenty participated in follow-up interviews.
Survey participants were paid from $1 to $3 each.
The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 7.28 percentage points.