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Fierce Governor’s Race Draws Voters to Polls

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

A fiercely contested three-way race for governor and a ballot measure aimed at the heart of one of the party’s key constituencies spurred Democratic turnout Tuesday, boosting the party’s candidates and causes up and down the ballot, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll.

The chief beneficiary appeared to be opponents of Proposition 226, the anti-union initiative.

With about half the vote counted, Proposition 226 was heading toward defeat at the polls.

The other winner getting a big boost was Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gray Davis, who turned the contest into a romp. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer easily won renomination over token opposition.

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“It seems the electorate was more Democratic than Republican, a function of the party’s contested race for governor and the fact Republican Dan Lungren was running essentially unopposed,” said Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll.

Four years ago, a Times exit poll found that the primary electorate was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

The poll surveyed more than 5,000 voters as they left their polling places in 100 precincts statewide. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Davis, the most workmanlike of politicians, appeared to perfectly suit the public mood. Neither bold nor flashy, he offered a comfort level that Californians seemed to crave at a time when the economy is booming, crime is falling and even traffic fatalities have hit a near 40-year low.

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He also benefited--most ironically--from his relative poverty, compared to multimillionaire opponents Al Checchi and Jane Harman. The fact that he couldn’t afford to advertise any earlier than his start in late April meant that Davis was the fresh face in the race by the time he surfaced on the air in ads that reinforced his stolid image.

Davis told anyone who would listen that dull was in--and the voters seemed to agree.

His winning margin was further padded by the confluence of his longtime support among union activists and organized labor’s fear of a life-or-death measure on the same ballot.

Union Members Energized

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Ironically, Proposition 226--originally envisioned by Gov. Pete Wilson and other backers as a means to divide and conquer Democrats and their union constituents--may have ended up backfiring by driving the faithful to the polls.

“Proposition 226 in particular energized union members,” Pinkus said, “and that helped Democrats and their positions across the board.”

The hard-fought three-way race among gubernatorial hopefuls Davis, Al Checchi and Jane Harman was the biggest draw for Democrats.

Forty-eight percent of those voting cited the governor’s race as their main reason for turning out, 25% cited Proposition 227, the initiative to end bilingual education which won handily. Twenty-two percent of those Democrats voting said Proposition 226 drew them to the polls and 11% cited the Senate primary, in which Boxer ran largely unopposed. Twenty-three percent of Democrats cited all those reasons for voting.

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On Proposition 227, 69% of the “no” vote came from Democrats and just 21% from Republicans. Forty-two percent of the support came from Democrats and 47% from Republicans.

Among supporters of Proposition 227, 64% who voted for the measure said they did so because they believe that it is important to speak English if you live in the United States. Fifty-six percent said bilingual education is not effective. (Respondents were allowed to give their top two reasons.)

Among opponents, the reasons were more diverse. But only 12% said they voted “no” because they believe bilingual education works.

Thirty-two percent of those voting no said Proposition 227 discriminates against non-English-speaking students, 24% said the measure was a one-size-fits-all solution that undercuts local authority and 19% said the measure was poorly written.

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In the governor’s contest, Davis seemed to get the biggest bang for his (relatively) meager bucks.

The candidate with the least to spend--a not insignificant $9 million--still managed to get his message across. Fully 60% of his supporters cited Davis’ experience as the chief reason to support the lieutenant governor--whose TV slogan tag line touted “experience money can’t buy.”

Thirty percent cited either “strong leadership” qualities or Davis’ “clear vision for California’s future.”

On the Republican side, experience also seemed to matter. Thirty-four percent of Atty. Gen. Lungren’s supporters cited his experience as the reason for their vote; 28% cited Lungren’s vision.

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In comparison, Davis’ two Democratic rivals, Checchi and Harman, had considerably less statewide political experience, and their backers cited other reasons for supporting them.

Twenty-four percent of Checchi’s supporters backed the airline tycoon, who was making his first run for office, for his leadership qualities and 24% because “he cares about people like me.”

Thirty-three percent of Harman supporters cited the Torrance congresswoman’s leadership skills and 24% backed her as the “best alternative"--a reflection, perhaps, of her unique decision to run only positive television advertising in a season when voters recoiled from the negative tenor of Checchi’s months-long ad campaign.

Checchi appeared to have suffered the most grievous harm from his negative advertising. Only thirty-six percent of voters had a favorable impression of Checchi while 64% had a negative impression.

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The target of much of the heaviest attacks also suffered. Fifty-one percent of voters had a favorable impression of Harman and 49% a negative impression.

Davis, who ran mostly positive ads, finished with a 70%-30% favorable rating, and Lungren was viewed favorably by 58% and unfavorably by 42%.

Almost half of Harman’s vote came from Democratic women, while Davis’ support was evenly divided between the sexes. One quarter of Checchi’s vote came from Latinos, a group he aggressively targeted. Republican Lungren--who also sought to reach out to Latinos--received only 6% of his support from the community. Eighty-six percent of Lungren’s backing came from white voters.

At the same time, Checchi drew more than a quarter of his vote from self-described conservatives. Davis drew 56% of his vote from moderates and 15% from conservatives. Harman drew 40% from liberals, 48% from moderates and 12% from conservatives.

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Davis drew the highest proportion of his votes from those groups who tend to turn out most reliably: older voters and the better educated.

Predictable voters were important because despite some predictions, the state’s new blanket primary--which allowed voters to cast a ballot for any candidate, regardless of registration--failed to dramatically boost turnout.

Also consistent with the experience in the two other states using a blanket system, Democrats tended to stick with Democrats and Republicans for the most part voted for Republicans.

There also was no significant upsurge in the number of independent voters, newly enfranchised under the free-for-all system that essentially made party registration moot.

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“Like a lot of things, voting is a habit,” Pinkus said, “and a lot of people are still used to voting under the old system.”

Checchi, who lives in Beverly Hills, drew about one-third of his vote from the Los Angeles area. Harman, Davis and Lungren all drew much more geographically disparate support.

Fong Gets Crossovers

In the bitterly contested GOP Senate primary, Darrell Issa drew 76% of his support from Republicans, compared to Matt Fong’s 66%. Fong got 24% of his support from crossover Democrats, compared to Issa’s 16%.

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“From the very beginning, Issa campaigned as a more hard-core conservative than Fong,” Pinkus said. “He also had the money to start advertising well before Fong could, allowing Issa to consolidate some of the party base early.”

Indeed, 53% of Issa’s support was from self-described conservative Republicans, while Fong drew only 37% of his support from the same group.

Fong drew much more of his support from moderates--both Republicans and non-Republicans voting in the primary. Fong got 40% of his vote from moderates, compared to 28% of Issa’s backing.

The candidates ran essentially even up and down the state, though Fong drew 14% of his vote from the San Francisco Bay Area while Issa got only 5% of his support from the traditionally more liberal enclave.

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Among the ballot measures, Proposition 226 was headed toward defeat under a wave of union opposition.

Forty-two percent of those who voted against Proposition 226 were members of union households. The measure also deeply polarized the two parties. Seventy-one percent of the “no” vote came from Democrats. Fifty-nine percent of the support came from Republicans.

Of those against Proposition 226, 50% were self-described moderates. Of those who voted for it, 36% said they were moderates.

“It was the moderate vote that was jeopardizing Proposition 226 because Democrats were strongly opposed and Republicans were never able to expand much beyond the party core,” Pinkus said.

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Times associate poll director Sharon Pinkerton contributed to this story.


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