Amid rising public concern over the state’s fiscal breakdown, a majority of California voters supports the removal of Gov. Gray Davis in a special recall election, a Los Angeles Times poll has found.
If the election were held today, 51% of voters would opt to unseat Davis, while 42% would reject the proposed recall, the poll found. Support for the recall has risen substantially since March, when a Times poll found just 39% of voters in favor of it.
The new survey illustrates the political danger that Davis faces as he struggles to survive the Republican-led campaign to kick him out of office. Voters overwhelmingly give the Democratic governor abysmal ratings on the budget, the economy, schools and energy.
“We need to get rid of him,” poll respondent Michael Johnson, 42, an unemployed San Diego software engineer and registered independent, said in a follow-up interview. “He’s the man in charge, so the buck stops there.”
Yet the poll’s other findings suggest that many voters are not firmly wedded to a recall. When told that the special election sought by proponents would cost at least $25 million, enough voters reversed themselves to doom the recall.
And when voters were asked whether they would support a recall if no Democrats were on the ballot to replace Davis, enough switched sides to keep him in office. At present, the state’s leading Democrats are united behind the governor, insisting that they do not intend to run to replace him.
The poll showed that, by far, the most popular statewide politician -- and the favorite to replace Davis -- was U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has been leading the Democratic effort to forge a united front against the recall. Second among the potential replacements was former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and recall financier and U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, among others, trailing behind.
Despite the potential for another shift of opinion, the poll illustrates the precipitous slide in Davis’ fortunes. Less than five years after he romped to a landslide victory, and just eight months after he was reelected, the governor’s popularity has plunged to another record low for his tenure: 22% of California voters approve of the way he is handling his job, while 69% disapprove, the poll found.
Supporting the recall are a majority of Republicans, conservatives, whites, Latinos and Southern California voters. A solid majority of liberals, blacks and Bay Area voters oppose the recall. Three in five Democrats are against the recall; moderates are split on the matter.
The backdrop for the governor’s troubles is a sour public mood. Nearly two out of three Californians say the state is on the wrong track; barely one in four believes it is moving in the right direction. Many voters blame Davis for the state’s stagnant economy and its colossal budget problems.
“I find it incredible that when he took office we had a surplus in this state, and now we’re in the hole,” said apartment manager Teri Hoerntlein, 37, a San Bernardino County independent who backs the recall. “If this were a private business, we would have had to declare bankruptcy.”
For months, the fiscal crisis has consumed Davis and the Legislature, drowning out the rest of the governor’s agenda. The budget debacle has also moved to the top of the list of public concerns, surpassing education, the poll found. To close the state’s record $38-billion shortfall, Davis is pushing to raise taxes and cut spending. Three out of four voters disapprove of Davis’ handling of the budget.
“Something has to be done,” said Visalia Republican June Glick, 60, another recall supporter. “Our state is in the biggest mess it’s ever been in.”
Davis is the first California governor to face a serious threat of getting tossed out of office by popular vote in the middle of his term. To reach the ballot, Davis opponents must gather nearly 900,000 valid voter signatures. County registrars, who are receiving the signed petitions, say they have about 695,000 signatures; recall organizers say that they have collected nearly a million and that the balance is en route to the registrars.
If the necessary tally is reached, the election could occur as soon as this fall. The ballot would have two parts: a yes-or-no vote on the Davis recall, followed by a menu of candidates seeking to replace him.
The growth in support for the recall comes after weeks of national television coverage, driven in large part by Schwarzenegger’s hints that he might run to replace Davis. Seventy percent of voters say they are following news of the recall effort closely.
But many voters are wary of Schwarzenegger: 53% say they are not inclined to vote for the Republican actor and former champion bodybuilder; 26% say they are leaning toward supporting him, the poll found.
“He’s too out there,” said Cal State Long Beach graduate student John Stavast, 33, a Democrat who supports the recall of Davis. “He’s too much of a movie star. There’s too many images of Arnold running around with guns blowing things up.”
Vickie Moreno, 35, a Mission Viejo housewife and Democrat who favors the recall, said Schwarzenegger “might be interesting” as governor.
"[Former Rep.] Sonny Bono did a decent job,” she said, “You never know.”
The most popular Republican replacement is Riordan, whose campaign for governor last year collapsed before the primary amid an onslaught of Davis attack ads. The poll found that 32% of voters are inclined to support the former mayor, that 37% are not and that 31% are undecided or have not heard enough about him.
Bill Simon Jr., the Republican gubernatorial nominee who was also hammered last year in Davis television ads, trails Riordan and Schwarzenegger; 22% of voters are inclined to support Simon, while 52% are not.
And Issa, chief sponsor of the recall drive and the only Republican to confirm he is running for governor, has yet to attract a large following: 11% are inclined to vote for the San Diego County congressman, 31% are not and 58% had heard too little about him to say one way or the other.
But voters’ favorite to replace Davis is a Democrat -- Feinstein.
Although she has insisted that she does not intend to run for governor, the survey found 46% of registered voters inclined to support her if she changed her mind. The poll also found that 57% of Californians approved of the way she is handling her job, while 25% do not.
“She fights for the state of California,” said retired nurse Ethel Underwood, 82, a Long Beach Democrat who is adamantly opposed to the recall.
The next most popular Democratic contender is Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante; 27% of registered voters were inclined to vote for him.
The poll showed that the makeup of the replacement ballot could have broad consequences for the outcome of the recall. When recall supporters were asked whether the absence of Democratic gubernatorial candidates would change their mind about ousting Davis, 8% said it would. That was enough to shift the result into a victory for Davis.
Yet the survey also shows the potential risk for the Democratic Party in having no candidates on the ballot. The governor and his strategists believe that if voters face a choice between Davis on one hand and a Republican or minor-party candidate on the other, they will keep him in office.
But the poll found that with no Democrat on the ballot to replace Davis, 30% of registered Democrats would simply decline to choose a replacement. That could increase the chance that a Republican would be elected governor if Davis was recalled.
In a recall race that included Democrats, the poll found Feinstein winning among registered voters with 25%, followed by Riordan and Schwarzenegger with 11% apiece; Simon with 9%; and seven other candidates at 6% or less, including Issa at 4%. Four percent said they would decline to vote for a replacement.
In a recall race with no Democrat on the ballot, Riordan finished first with 21%, followed by Schwarzenegger, 17%; Simon, 10%; Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate for governor last year, 9%; state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), 6%; and Issa, 3%. In that case, 17% say they would not vote for a Davis replacement.
As Davis seeks to redeem himself, he faces a daunting task: Animosity toward him cuts across nearly every voter group. He scores negative job ratings from a majority of men and women; whites, blacks and Latinos; Democrats, Republicans and independents. Even among union members -- the heart of his political base -- 69% disapprove of his job performance.
The signs of hope for the governor had little to do with Davis himself, and more to do with the views of a sizable bloc of voters who are unhappy with him but don’t want to throw him out of office.
“It’s really kind of going against the voters’ will, and I’m very sensitive to those sorts of things,” said financial analyst Don Petree, 39, a San Luis Obispo County Republican who voted against Davis last year but opposes the recall. “I think it’s the wrong path to go down.”
Retired Silicon Valley sign painter Robert Bagnatori, 81, was among the majority of Democrats against the recall.
“He just inherited a mess, that’s all,” Bagnatori said. “They need a scapegoat, and they’re using him. The Republicans just want to take control of California.”
Some voters are receptive to the governor’s argument that it’s wasteful in the midst of a fiscal crisis to spend money on a special statewide election in the fall -- the timing preferred by recall proponents. The costs could be avoided if the recall was consolidated with the March presidential primary.
“We have hungry people, people without jobs, children that need things in the schools,” said Los Angeles Democrat Brenda Yates, 53, a special-education aide who is on disability. “Take the money and use it for that instead of setting up a new election.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Sign of discontent
Q: If the special recall election were being held today, would you vote yes to recall Gov. Davis or would you vote no, to not recall him?
Among registered voters. Includes those ‘leaning’ toward voting yes or no.
Yes, recall -- 51%
No, not recall -- 42%
Haven’t heard enough/Don’t know -- 7%
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The recall effort
Q: Why do you want to recall the governor?* (asked of registered voters)
Mismanaged his office -- 35%
Not a good governor -- 18%
No leadership qualities -- 15%
Budget stalemate -- 13%
* Asked of those who would vote to recall Davis. Accepted up to two replies. Top four responses shown.
Q: If the special recall election for governor were being held today, would you be inclined or not inclined to vote for each of these candidates?**
*--* Inclined Not inclined Haven’t heard to vote for to vote for enough/don’t know Dianne Feinstein 46% 37% 17% Richard Riordan 32% 37% 31% Cruz Bustamante 27% 32% 41% Arnold Schwarzenegger 26% 53% 21% Bill Simon, Jr 22% 52% 26% Bill Lockyer 19% 29% 52% Tom McClintock 18% 26% 56% John Garamendi 16% 35% 49% Darrell Issa 11% 31% 58% Phil Angelides 10% 24% 66% Peter Camejo 8% 33% 59%
** Asked of registered voters. Respondents were read candidates’ job titles and party affiliations.
Q: If the special recall election were being held today, for which of these candidates would you vote?
*--* All Registered Registered Registered Registered Voters Democrats Independents Republicans Feinstein 25% 39% 27% 6% Riordan 11% 8% 12% 17% Schwarzenegger 11% 6% 11% 18% Simon 9% -% 2% 24% Bustamante 6% 8% 5% 2% McClintock 6% 3% 4% 10% Issa 3% 1% 2% 8% Lockyer 3% 5% 2% - Garamendi 2% 4% 2% 1% Camejo 2% 1% 6% - Angelides 1% 1% 3% - Someone else - 1% - 1% (volunteered) Wouldn’t vote 4% 5% 3% 1% Haven’t heard 17% 18% 21% 13% enough/Don’t know
Q: If the special recall election were being held today and no Democrat was on the ballot, for which of these candidates would you vote?
*--* All Registered Registered Registered Registered Voters Democrats Independents Republicans Riordan 21% 23% 19% 19% Schwarzenegger 17% 14% 15% 23% Simon 10% 3% 3% 25% Camejo 9% 8% 18% 2% McClintock 6% 4% 3% 11% Issa 3% 1% 3% 6% Someone else 1% 1% 1% - (volunteered) Wouldn’t vote 17% 30% 14% 3% Haven’t heard 16% 16% 24% 11% enough/Don’t know
Notes: ‘Independents’ includes members of political parties other than Democrats and Republicans. When vote questions are read to respondents, the candidates’ names are rotated. ' - ' indicates less than 0.5%. Numbers may not total 100% where more than one response was accepted or some answer categories are not shown.
How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll contacted 1,412 California adults, including 1,127 registered voters, by telephone June 28-July 2. The margin of sampling error for registered voters and for the overall state sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. To allow for analysis, the main sample was supplemented to a total of 100 African American voters (margin of sampling error +/- 9 percentage points) and the samples were then weighted to their proportion in the state. Telephone numbers were selected from a list of all exchanges in California. Random-digit dialing techniques allowed both listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and registration figures from the secretary of state. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Asian Americans are part of the sample but there were not enough to break out as a separate subgroup.
Times poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll
The Times Poll, supervised by polling Director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,412 adults statewide, including 1,127 registered voters, from June 28 to July 2. The margin of sampling error for both is plus or minus 3 percentage points.