Voters Divided Over Whether to Recall Davis

Times Staff Writer

California voters are closely divided over whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis and are concerned that the election might result in confusion and spawn future attempts at political payback, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

The survey, which ended Thursday night, finds a state nearly cleaved in half by partisan divisions. Democrats are overwhelmingly negative in their assessments of the recall process, while Republicans view the Oct. 7 vote in largely positive terms.

But in signs of danger for Davis, Republicans appear much more energized by the off-year election, meaning they are more likely to vote. At the same time, the governor has the support of just three in four of his fellow Democrats. Eighty-three percent of Republicans favor recalling him.


Overall, 50% of likely voters said they supported the effort to turn Davis out of office, while 45% were opposed. Most said their minds were firmly made up: Just 5% of those surveyed said they were still deciding how to cast their ballots.

Still, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds the election. The vote is unprecedented in California, and a gubernatorial recall effort has succeeded only once in the nation’s history.

Turnout on Oct. 7 will be decisive and, given the unusual nature of the race, it is difficult to project exactly who will take part in the vote, which is just a little more than six weeks away. (The figures in the Times poll assume a disproportionately high Republican turnout.)

Other recent polls have shown stronger support for the recall effort. Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll, said that may reflect the timing of the surveys. “The dust has settled; people are becoming more pragmatic, realistic and serious about it,” she said.

The Times Poll interviewed 1,351 registered voters between Aug. 16 and Aug. 21. Among them were 801 voters deemed likely to cast ballots in the recall election. The margin of sampling error for likely voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The survey turned up a deeply sour mood among Californians, with Davis -- the central figure in the recall drama -- bearing the brunt of that dissatisfaction.

Nearly eight in 10 likely voters said things in California were headed in the wrong direction, and nearly seven in 10 said the economy was in bad shape. Asked whom they blamed, a third said Davis was responsible for the weak economy, while the Legislature, controlled by Democrats, was faulted by 27%. Just 17% suggested that President Bush was responsible, despite Davis’ assertions that national economic problems have dragged California down.

Overall, 72% of likely voters disapproved of Davis’ job performance, including more than half of his fellow Democrats. Only 26% of likely voters approved.

One Democrat polled is Kimberly Perez, 33, a veterinary student in the Central Valley town of Galt. “I’m just not satisfied with the way the state’s going right now,” she said in a follow-up interview.

Specifically, she cited Davis’ handling of the 2001 energy crisis and the cuts made to education as part of the budget he signed earlier this month.

“I just don’t think he reacted soon enough to what was going on in our state,” Perez said.

Davis’ image as a poor leader is widely held and the main reason that likely voters said they wanted to oust him from office, less than a year after he won election to a second term. One in three of those who said they would recall him cited “mismanagement” as the reason, and 19% cited the energy crisis, which helped foster the governor’s reputation for indecisiveness.

Even the vast majority of those opposed to the recall effort were not overly fond of the governor, citing concerns about the process -- rather than personal regard for Davis -- as the reason they were against the move to bounce him from office.

Roughly one in five of those opposed to the recall effort said the governor had been reelected fairly and deserved to serve a full four-year term. Thirteen percent cited the estimated $66 million cost, and 13% said the election was simply a “stupid idea.”

“I don’t think that’s the way government ought to be run,” said Andrew Culbreath, a 70-year-old Panorama City retiree and Democrat. “The recall is for cases of malfeasance or misuse of office. I don’t think it should be used because you disagree with their policies.”

Even though a plurality of likely voters said they favored recalling Davis, there is still concern -- and confusion -- about how the election will proceed.

The balloting will be a two-step process. First, voters will be asked whether or not Davis should be removed from office. Then, regardless of how-- or if -- they voted on that question, they can vote to choose his successor. If more than 50% favor recalling Davis, the candidate with the most votes on the second half of the ballot will take office as soon as election results are certified.

The survey found that nearly one in three voters was confused about how the election works, or was unsure about how to proceed upon receiving a ballot.

The poll also found worry about the plethora of candidates -- 135 -- who will be listed as potential replacements for Davis. Asked if they feared it would be difficult to find their favored candidates on the list, 60% expressed concern about navigating the lengthy ballot.

Even so, three in four likely voters said the confusion would make no difference in their decision whether to recall Davis. And 64% said it made no difference that Davis’ successor could be elected with just a small percentage of the total votes cast. Even a majority of Democrats said that did not matter as they weighed the governor’s fate.

Overall, however, most opinions on the recall effort were deeply shaded by partisanship.

The effort to qualify the initiative was led by Republicans, who garnered nearly 1.7 million signatures from voters of all stripes to force the referendum on Davis’ future. Asked if they believed -- as Davis has argued -- that the election was a GOP attempt to overturn his victory last November, 52% of likely voters said they did not; 45% said they did.

Among Democrats, three in four believed that Republicans were trying to subvert the 2002 results, while 84% of Republicans disagreed.

Opinions were similarly split about how the recall effort is unfolding and what the election represents.

Likely voters were asked which statement came closer to their view: “The diversity of candidates running for governor shows that the democratic process is working” or “The recall process is threatening to turn the process into a political circus”? Overall, 53% of likely voters said the race threatened to become a circus. Eighty percent of Democrats held that view; by contrast, 67% of Republicans said the political process is working the way it should.

Similarly, asked about the precedent established by the recall vote and the possibility of continued recriminations -- another reason Davis has offered for voting “no” -- 52% of likely voters said they worried about starting a cycle of political payback. Three in four Democrats called the election a “dangerous precedent”; two-thirds of Republicans, however, said they had no such concern.

To forestall future recall attempts, 61% of likely voters said they would like to make it more difficult to force such elections. Eighty-one percent of Democrats liked the idea; 56% of Republicans were opposed.

Partisans even differed over whether the election was taking a toll on official business in Sacramento. By 54% to 44%, a majority of likely voters agreed recall elections like the one Oct. 7 interfere with elected officials’ ability to do their duties. Three in four Democrats agreed, while two in three Republicans disagreed.

But for all those strong feelings, Republicans appear far more energized by the election than Democrats. Republicans make up 35% of registered voters in the state, while Democrats constitute 45%. However, the Times poll suggests that a disproportionate number of Republicans are likely to actually vote in the election, accounting for 43% of the turnout, with Democrats making up 45%.

“The recall seems to have mobilized the Republican Party base, while Democratic voters are not as enthused at this point,” said poll director Pinkus. “For Davis to beat the recall, he must do more to excite his own troops to come to his rescue.”

Part of GOP enthusiasm -- apart from the chance to wrest the governor’s office from Democrats -- may have to do with perceptions of how a new governor would fare in Sacramento.

Overall, 61% of likely voters -- and eight in 10 Republicans -- said they believed electing someone other than Davis as governor would make a significant difference in fixing problems like the budget gap and the shortcomings of public education. More than half -- 55% -- of Democrats said it would make little or no difference.

Paradoxically, however, likely voters are more pessimistic about the success any new governor would have dealing with the Democratic-run Legislature.

Fifty-nine percent of likely voters said they believed that “partisan politics” would allow room for little accomplishment, a view that is essentially shared by Democrats and Republicans.

That may reflect the low esteem Californians have for Sacramento in general. Asked how much of the time they feel they can trust the state government “to do what is right,” 79% said only some of the time or hardly ever. Only 21% said just about always or most of the time. Democrats and Republicans basically shared that largely negative view.



Recall Davis?

Q: If the election were being held today, how would you vote on recalling Gov. Davis?

Yes, recall Davis -- 50%

No, do not recall Davis -- 45%

Don’t know -- 5%

*--* Yes No Democrats 15% 76% Independents 64% 36% Republicans 83% 14%


Among likely voters. Includes those ‘leaning’ toward voting yes or no. ‘Independents’ includes members of minor parties.

Source: Times Poll



Voters decide Davis’ fate

The election

Q: If the election were being held today, how would you vote on recalling Gov. Davis?

*--* Yes, No, do recall not recall All likely voters 50% 45% Liberals 21% 77% Moderates 38% 53% Conservatives 81% 15% Whites 57% 40% Latinos 39% 45% Men 54% 44% Women 47% 46% Union households 44% 47%


Those who would vote to recall Davis were asked:

Q: Why do you want to recall the governor? (Accepted up to two replies. Top three responses shown.)

Mismanaged his office: 34%

Handling of energy crisis: 19%

Not a good governor: 16%

Those who would vote against recalling Davis were asked:

Q: Why do you not want to recall the governor? (Accepted up to two replies. Top four responses shown.)

Elected fairly/Should serve out term: 21%

Doesn’t deserve recall: 20%

Ridiculous/stupid idea: 13%

Cost of election: 13%

Q: Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

This election is an attempt by Republicans to

overturn an election they lost last November.

Agree: 45

Disagree: 52

Having 135 candidates on the ballot diminishes the

seriousness of California’s electoral process.


Disagree: 36

Recall elections like this interfere with elected

officials’ ability to fulfill their duties efficiently.


Disagree: 44

It’s a dangerous precedent: Every governor from

now on is likely to face a recall attempt by his or

her opponents.

Agree: 52

Disagree: 44

It should take a larger percentage of voters to

qualify a recall measure for the ballot.

Agree: 61

Disagree: 36

Q: Does the fact that the election will cost taxpayers at least $66 million enter into your decision to vote yes or no on recalling Davis? If so, does that make you more likely to vote yes or more likely to vote no?

Doesn’t enter into decision: %

More likely to vote no: 26%

More likely to vote yes: 7%

Q: Which statement comes closer to your view: ‘The diversity of candidates running for governor shows that the democratic process is working,’ or ‘The recall is threatening to turn the political process into a circus’?

Democracy working: 42%

Circus: 53%

Q: What is your understanding: Is it possible to vote no on the recall and also vote for a replacement candidate, or can only those who vote yes on the recall vote for a replacement?

Can vote no and vote for replacement (correct answer): 67%

Must vote yes to vote for replacement: 15%

Don’t know: 18%

State of the state

Q: Are things in California generally going in the right direction or are they seriously off on the wrong track?

(*Asked of likely voters in late-October polls conducted before presidential and gubernatorial elections in November of these years. For the complete graph, consult the graphic in the library’s graphics database.)

Right direction: 14%

Wrong track: 78%

Q: Gov. Davis job approval rating:

Disapprove: 72%

Approve: 26%

Don’t know: 2%

Q: Legislature job approval rating:

Disapprove: 70%

Approve: 23%

Don’t know: 7%

Q: How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Sacramento to do what is right?

Just about always: 1%

Most of the time: 20%

Only some of the time: 61%

Hardly ever: 18%

Q: How is California’s economy doing these days?

Badly: 69%

Well: 29%

Don’t know: 2%

Those who said economy is doing badly were asked:

Q: Whom do you blame for state’s economic problems? (Accepted up to two replies. Top three responses shown.)

Gov. Davis: 34%

State Legislature: 27%

Pres. Bush and his economic policies: 17%

Note: All results shown are among likely voters. Results in vote questions include those who are ‘leaning’ toward voting yes or no. Numbers may not total 100% where more than one response was accepted or some answer categories are not shown.

Times Poll results are also available at

How the Poll Was Conducted: The Times Poll contacted 1,351 California registered voters, including 801 voters deemed likely to vote, by telephone Aug. 16-21. The margin of sampling error for both registered and likely voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points. To allow for analysis, the main sample was supplemented to provide a total of 125 Latino likely voters (margin of sampling error +/- 9 percentage points) and the samples were weighted to their state proportions. Poll results can be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented. Surveys conducted during busy campaign seasons are also subject to influence by news events. Several such events took place during this survey period. Davis, Schwarzenegger, Ueberroth and Bustamante held press conferences. Schwarzenegger launched a TV ad campaign and his “economic summit” on the topic of the California economy was widely covered in the news. Attitudes about the recall are volatile. Telephone numbers for all samples were randomly selected from a list of all exchanges in the state, which allows all residents equal chance of being contacted without regard to listed or unlisted numbers or their presence on registered voter lists. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education as well as to registration figures provided by the secretary of state. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. All racial and ethnic groups are proportionally represented in this survey, even though there may not be enough in the sample to be specifically mentioned.


Jill Darling Richardson, associate director of the Times Poll, and Claudia Vaughn, the poll’s data management supervisor, contributed to this report.