Recalling strategies

Davis lost the vote - before he'd even started campaigning.

Davis lost the vote - before he'd even started campaigning.

One of the joys of working with public opinion is that just when you think you've done everything there is to do, the unexpected happens and you wake up in the middle of a war zone unarmed and without a map. In California, you can count on it.

Last November, Californians reelected Governor Gray Davis to a second four-year term. Though his five-point margin was narrow against a weak challenger, the thought that the voters could kick him out of office within the year seemed inconceivable. But the recall was the denouement of a string of events over several years that left California voters frustrated and, ultimately, furious.

Davis won his first term as governor in 1998 against long odds. He benefited from the voters' perception that "he's been around a long time and I've never heard anything bad about him." In retrospect, that was an inauspicious start.

Davis saw no need to sell himself to the voters. He never gave speeches, held press conferences, attended town-hall meetings, or gave voters evidence that he was looking out for them. It was clear then that if and when the voters began to be dissatisfied with the job he was doing, they were going to be unlikely to forgive him.

The only reputation he did develop was one of a prolific fundraiser. Voters understand that politicians who aren't rich need to spend a lot of time raising money. But the public perceived just about every action he took as motivated by his appetite for special-interest contributions.

Sure enough, as Davis approached the end of his second year in office, things began to go south. The price of electricity was escalating rapidly, and Davis refused to let the state's investor-owned utilities pass on their increased wholesale costs. Soon there was a shortage of power.

By the time the 2002 elections rolled around, Davis was an incumbent in trouble, even thought most of what was bothering Californians was not his fault: September 11; a stalled economy; corporate scandals; allegations of child abuse in the Catholic Church.

But instead of offering credible reassurance to the voters that he had protected them during bad times and was the candidate best equipped to protect them in the future, he argued that he should be reelected because the alternative would be worse.

By year-end, Davis had managed to get himself reelected to the governorship in a political environment that had turned hostile for many reasons that he could not control.

Within weeks after Davis' reelection, a few Republican activists were threatening to gather signatures for a recall of the governor. The Republican leadership in the state did nothing to encourage the recall, presumably relishing the prospect of picking on a politically damaged Governor Davis during the 2004 elections, and in fear of what the Democrats would do to retaliate if statewide recalls became an accepted part of the everyday political arsenal in California.

But signature gatherers bearing petitions to put the recall on the ballot were greeted by a receptive public. Boosting the effort, Congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican of wealth and political ambition and no apparent allegiance to the state party leadership, agreed to fund much of it.

The Democratic leadership of the state continued to act as though the recall - a tool used on occasion in legislative races, but never at the statewide level - would never happen, right up until July 23, when the Secretary of State announced that it had qualified for the ballot.

Potential candidates had until August 7 to file for office. The jockeying during that stretch was incredible.

The ballot contained two questions. The first was whether or not to recall Davis. The second was who should replace Davis, were he to be recalled.

The Republicans had a straightforward job. They hoped to avoid splitting their party's vote by limiting the number of serious Republicans on question two to just one major candidate.

The Democrats' quandary

The Democrats had a more difficult task. Some party leaders argued that if a serious Democrat ran on the second question, it would give Democrats permission to vote for the recall. Others argued that it would be ludicrous not to have a serious Democratic candidate, believing that most Democrats would vote against the recall, but would expect to find a Democratic candidate on question two as an insurance policy.

In light of Davis' unpopularity, any Democrat running on question two seemed to run the risk of losing voter support if they urged a "no" vote on the recall. But if they urged a "yes" vote on the recall and lost, they ran the risk of being driven out of the Democratic party for life. Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante opted to urge a "no" vote, but skeptics looked for proof that he had his fingers crossed behind his back when he said it.

In the end, one serious Democrat, four serious Republicans, and two serious other candidates filed along with 128 other people. No one was ready to run a campaign for statewide office in California on such short notice, and the consultants had to make up the rules as they went along.

The outcome was mostly predictable in light of opinion research findings at the start of the race.

Davis entered the recall with roughly three out of four California voters disliking him. While it was clear that their view of him was not susceptible to change, many voters were uncertain whether a recall was a good idea or a bad one. Davis' best hope was to convince these voters to reject it as a matter of principle.

Davis' strategic mandate was to win back the 20%-30% of Democrats who had started the campaign planning to vote against him, and to motivate supportive Democrats to turn out to vote. In the end, he accomplished neither.

Bustamante's challenge

Bustamante started the recall with two huge advantages. As the lieutenant governor, most voters assumed that he was the appropriate replacement for the governor. Second, he was the only serious Democrat on question two, and the party's vote would not be split.

But Bustamante entered the race with no money in the bank and no significant fundraising base. He had to rely on a large infusion of cash from Native-American gaming interests, even though newly imposed contribution caps severely limited his ability to use the cash directly in his own campaign committee.

Failing to anticipate both legal and publicity objections to his efforts to shoehorn the Native-American money into his campaign under the scrutiny of an unusually attentive press, Bustamante became the victim of ongoing charges that he was Gray Davis-lite, beholden to narrow special interests for campaign contributions.

Bustamante also failed to limit to a one-day story charges that a Latino student organization he once belonged to had an allegedly controversial agenda. And he chose to ardently defend the massively unpopular bill granting California drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, which was signed by Davis in hopes of shoring up his Latino support. Bustamante's unfavorable rating quickly surpassed his favorables, and in an eight-week-long campaign, he never worked his way out of the corner into which he had been backed. He be-came the candidate who only cared about Latinos and Native Americans, and he wound up with 31.8% of the vote, losing a significant block of Democrats.

The two viable candidates not affiliated with a major party never broke above noise level. Arianna Huffington, running as an Independent, and Peter Camejo, running as a member of the Green Party, both had enough support in the polls to be invited to most of the major debates, but not enough resources to become viable.

The fear among Republicans that their vote would be split into too many pieces to beat Bustamante diminished when Bill Simon, who had lost the 2002 governor's race to Davis, discontinued his campaign, followed by businessman and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, a thoughtful, wealthy candidate known to some elites but not the voters.

That left far-right conservative state Senator Tom McClintock and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger entered the race with a solid base of angry young men who thought it would be neat to blow up Sacramento. But they are not dedicated members of the electorate. Jesse Ventura faced a similar problem in his successful bid for governor of Minnesota. But that state has same-day registration, so the Ventura campaign was able to grab these supporters, register them, and get them to the polls. However, California has a 15-day registration cutoff, so the strategic mandate of the Schwarzenegger campaign was to reassure older Republicans, who always vote, that he actually could fix the problems in Sacramento.

Schwarzenegger never convinced most voters that he knew much of anything about California government. He didn't try. He avoided debates. He spoke in generalities. To the end he was the exact opposite of Davis. Inexperienced in government, but warm, charming, charismatic, energetic, and tough. McClintock, a far-right ideologue widely viewed as an intelligent, experienced officeholder of great conviction, never laid a glove on Arnold, if for no other reason than Arnold outspent him on TV, which is the traditional way of reaching California voters in a statewide race.

In the end, the voters opted for change over experience, even in the face of last-minute allegations that Schwarzenegger had engaged in inappropriate, nonconsensual acts with more than a dozen women. Schwarzenegger is not without problems. He never cleared the experience hurdle. He is a polarizing figure much more than the election results suggest, with his favorable and unfavorable ratings about even coming out of the campaign. But by unseating a sitting California governor he has made history. And he did that with plenty of money and an informed, disciplined plan. Which is exactly what winners usually have.

  • Darry Sragow is a managing director of Public Strategies, an international strategic communications firm, in charge of its California operations. Since 1996 he has served as chief campaign strategist for the Democrats in the California State Assembly.

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