Politics & Policy

End of Gray Days

Recall Day in California.

–Two Democrat tracking polls show the California recall winning today; one at 52 percent, one at 54 percent, and both show Democrat Cruz Bustamante competitive. Republican tracking polls show a much greater recall margin, and Bustamante long gone. In fact, after freefall, Cruz hit bottom at the core-Democratic base and started to climb back this weekend.

#ad#Bustamante’s ubiquitous TV spots still rely on a very strong visual: He removes his glasses. But, he has bought so many TV spots in the last 72 hours that some run back-to-back. Moreover a poorly produced Dianne Feinstein spot (although it has the right message) might cut recall support and help him. McClintock himself remains a wild card. His support is overwhelmingly conservative but Orange County’s alternative newspaper endorsed him in a weird editorial (“Why progressives should vote for the most conservative candidate“). R. Scott Moxley wrote: “Don’t be frightened. Despite initial appearances, McClintock is the best choice.”) Will the Green party’s Peter Camejo take enough votes from the Cruzer to assure an Arnold Schwarzenegger win?

Back to election numbers. Last week, news reports prematurely claimed varying amounts of absentee ballots “have been cast.” They were looking at absentee applications. Actually, any such number also (wrongly) included “late” absentees arriving Monday and today. Moreover, in each new election, more voters bring their absentee ballots to the polls. Thus, late voter shifts, if they exist, would be reflected partly in these absentee ballots (yesterday/today). More generally, absentee voters are far less Republican than their counterparts two decades ago. But they remain disproportionately older and, in this election, relatively more anti-Davis.

A generation ago, a voter had to provide a reason, e.g., illness, to apply for an absentee ballot. That changed long ago. That’s a key reason why absentee voting moved upward, as a percentage of total votes cast, from the single digits in the 1970s to double-digits in the ’80s and ’90s; we could be talking about 30 percent or more in this election. On the Republican side, Arnold’s campaign mailed absentee applications and also “chased” applicants. Last year, for the first time, many voters were able to apply for “permanent absentee” status. That’s just what many Republicans did.

The first Election Night returns tonight will probably be mainly absentee ballots. Generally, these absentee totals reflect only the ballots that have arrived the day before the election. It will take days to count the large number of ballots arriving at county registrar offices today, or brought to the precincts.

This confuses the voter-turnout numbers. That’s because television reporters will focus on this election’s hourly turnout, comparing past elections. They never seem to get it right. When the polls close, turnout magically jumps–it’s the absentees; days later, it climbs yet again, with late absentees.

The networks will test exit polling for this recall election. Their joint operation is a prototype for 2004. They had abandoned exit polling after widely publicized mishaps in recent years. But California had its own disaster more than two decades ago. That’s when exit polling showed Tom Bradley winning for governor against George Deukmejian. One problem is the exit polling necessarily focused on Election Day voters, not the absentee voters who gave Deukmejian his victory margin. This time, exit polls will allow for the effect of absentee voting.

Also, the Los Angeles Times will do its own exit polling. (It will probably ask females, “Were you ever groped by Arnold?”) But the newspaper and the networks face the same challenge: There are no precedents for this unique election. Yet, exit polls rely on interviews with voters leaving selected precincts. That begs this question: How are the relatively small number of precincts chosen? Past electoral behavior is a key factor. Thus, the architects of the exit polls must bridge the speculative gap between past elections and this one.

Counting the ballots will not be easy, and probably not punctual. The seven pages of candidates will require more time than usual. Think of how many people will likely “over-vote” (meaning they vote for more than one candidate)? Over-voting disqualifies a ballot. What if the election is close and the ACLU doesn’t like the outcome? Look for nonwhite over-voters.

One NRO reader wrote me: “Arnold has been groped by women at least as often as he grouped them.” That’s one of many Republican reactions that reflect this double standard: Arnold is from Hollywood. There is widespread rage at the Los Angeles Times for what is seen as a last-minute scheme to throw the election. But if “last-minute smears” backfire, then why did the paper wait?

If crowds are any indication, Arnold will win easily. That’s even if you discount the curious–his tour looks like a presidential campaign. The number of reporters and cameras could be ominous. Suppose Arnold wins. Assuming no legal battles, he could become certified as governor in about three weeks. He would not have the usual transition (November/January). It’s not just the media here that would dog him, but national and even international media. Voters have high and unrealistic expectations; they will need a reality fix.

Will Democrats try to recall him? Such a move would probably create its own anti-Dem backlash. For any recall to succeed, Arnold would have to renege, big-time on something big–like backsliding on his promise to repeal the car tax hike.

The super-rich Clinton-pal Steve Bing might pay for a recall campaign. Recall that Bing has been subject to two high-profile celebrity paternity suits. Would he really propose that Arnold be recalled for improper sexual etiquette?

Arnold Steinberg is a California-based political strategist.

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