Upsets happen every election cycle. But, every once in a while, there’s an upset so big that nobody – not even the underdog candidate- saw it coming.

That happened last week in the 39th Assembly District, where Democrat Patty Lopez is leading incumbent Democratic Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra by just 32 votes. All the political professionals in Sacramento are scratching their heads, asking “What the hell happened?”

The first-take analysis is that a popular lawmaker, well-known in Sacramento, with strong leadership skills, lost track of his first priority: getting re-elected. The vast majority of money raised by Bocanegra, along with his personal and staff time, went into races known to be competitive. A team player, Bocanegra dedicated his time to the key races that could swing the partisan makeup of the State Assembly.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. Legislators with leadership aspirations in safe seats have always assisted their more vulnerable colleagues. In fact, this year, there was a bus tour of Democratic legislators from safe seats that traveled around the state, campaigning for Democrats in swing seats from Antelope Valley to Ventura, Dublin and Sacramento. Republican legislators, too, focused their time, energy and staff resources in picking up swing seats, instead of walking precincts in their own districts.

There was no evidence that Bocanegra could be in trouble. In the June 3rd primary, Bocanegra beat Lopez by nearly 40-points, the largest margin of any Democrat vs. Democrat primary in L.A. County. His opponent was not reporting any expenditures, didn’t have a candidate statement and looked to be running a small campaign with monolingual Spanish YouTube videos and a Facebook page.

Based on all the available information, it would have been selfish for Bocanegra to follow-up an overwhelming primary victory with a full-fledged general election campaign against a weak opponent spending no money.

So what happened? We don’t know. But, we like it. Here are some ideas and theories floating around Sacramento and the San Fernando Valley.

Basic grassroots: Knocking on doors, one-on-one campaigning can win in the San Fernando Valley.

This argument has some legs. Past races in this area have been won by strong door-to-door campaigns, even stunning the apparent front-runner, such as the Los Angeles City Council race between LASUD Board Member Nuri Martinez and former Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez.

After Martinez lost the primary by 20-points, her campaign went door-to-door and asked voter who they supported, showing pictures and bios of the two candidates. A surprising number of voters didn’t know, and that prompted an aggressive grassroots campaign that sought to flip the primary outcome. Martinez ended up winning by 9-points.

But, that’s not necessarily the case in Bocanegra’s potential upset. The areas with the strongest Latino and Spanish-speaking communities, which were targeted by Lopez, actually supported the incumbent. Bocanegra even won Lopez’s home precinct by 30-points. So, while the grassroots campaign may have had some impact, it could not account for the entire outcome.

Nobody in Los Angeles knows their state lawmaker.

The Los Angeles media market covers statewide candidates, city council and international news. Little if any attention goes to the legislative delegation. State legislators generally gain little name recognition during their time in Sacramento. One consultant at a recent post-election conference talked about putting himself and his friends into polling to test how well they did against incumbent L.A. lawmakers. In some cases, they actually did better, even without ever setting foot in the district.

With a lack of name ID, and inability for local voters to truly get to know their elected officials through media coverage, any incumbent could be vulnerable in their re-election, particularly their first re-elect in a hyper low-turnout election, as was the case with Bocanegra.

Blame the Ballot

Patty Lopez was listed first on the ballot. Research has shown that being the first candidate listed on the ballot can result in a 5-point bump. It’s even more common in down-ballot races, where the candidates are less well-known or lack a partisan difference.

That’s compounded by some confusion about the new open primary and how the 39th Assembly District was placed on the ballot. As can be seen in a ballot image, the voter was given a list of candidates with the Democrat listed on top, followed by the Republican, going five races deep. Then, the sixth race – Bocanegra vs. Lopez -suddenly featured a Democrat followed by another Democrat.

If a voter was attempting to just vote a straight party-line ballot, it is very conceivable that they would just vote for the first candidate in each contest, not realizing that the last one was an intra-party contest.

Sure, we put on our tin foil hat for that last explanation, but there is evidence from other races of similar ballot-order bias within a Democrat v. Democrat contest. In Assembly District 47, with two Democrats on the ballot, Cheryl Brown, who was listed first, beat Gil Navarro by 36-points on the primary ballot. Then, in November, when the order was reversed, her gap narrowed to 14-points.

It was a Protest Vote

In a low turnout election, Republicans, some non-Latino Democrats, and particularly those known in L.A. politics as “The Horse People” (yes, there are actually horse people in LA) could have been voting for Lopez as a way to register their opposition to the incumbent or dislike for Sacramento. Without a Republican or non-Latino on the ballot, they just voted for the other candidate.

A look at the geographic distribution of the votes would support this theory– to an extent. The largest votes for Lopez were from the more Republican, Independent, older and whiter portions of the district, along with the small semi-rural horse areas.

Could these be votes be based on policy differences between the two candidates? Probably not. Any Republican who looked at Lopez’s campaign materials would have found most online content in Spanish. Of the English-language material, it was a mix of liberal themes, such as feeding the homeless and investing in education. In his first election, Bocanegra was supported by independent expenditures by the state’s business community. Informed voters likely consider him a moderate or centrist, compared to the information made available by the Lopez campaign.

Campaign Finance Disclosures Misled Bocanegra

Throughout the primary election campaign, Patty Lopez reported no expenditures. She was subsequently fined by the FPPC for not filing reports on her $3,780 in expenditures. (We don’t think there was anything nefarious about these violations. She is, after all, a true citizen politician. Campaign finance laws shouldn’t be used as a weapon against amateurs.)

But, this pattern of non-reporting was apparently continued through the general election. Online reports show no dollars raised or spent, but the L.A. Daily News reported that Lopez spent $10,000 on the campaign.

Bocanegra probably wouldn’t have been scared by $10,000. But, the lack of transparency could have contributed to the idea that she wasn’t campaigning or a serious threat.

No matter the reason, or combination of reasons for Bocanegra’s potential upset, political campaigns should take notice. Like Tip O’Neill famously said after his first election loss, “All politics is local.”

In the current climate – with voters receiving more information from a variety of non-traditional sources and reduced civic engagement – it is incumbent upon incumbents to engage with voters year-round and communicate with their district – regardless of the perceived strength of their opponent.

Cross-posted at CalNewsRoom.