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California Screamin'

Schwarzenegger may be governor, but California remains California and incumbents are in trouble. That’s the message DR takes away from Tuesday’s election results.

It’s hard to read this election as anything other than a manifestation of anti-incumbent feeling. The California electorate detested Gray Davis and were thoroughly dissatisfied at the situation the state was in. So they voted for the recall. They didn’t see Bustamante as representing a change from Davis’ administration and business as usual. So they took a chance on Schwarzenegger and voted for him.

Does this mean that Republicans are suddenly competitive in California in ‘04? Hardly. Indeed, you could argue that the only shot they had in California in ‘04 was if Davis had remained in office and they could have gotten voters to vote Republican in protest against the state’s incumbent. But now he’s gone and California voters will be free to focus their dissatisfaction on the nation’s incumbent–George W. Bush.

And how do they feel about Bush? They are not happy campers. In a recent Field poll, Bush received a 46 percent job approval rating from California’s voters, including a 42 percent rating among nonpartisan/independent voters and a 19 percent (!) rating among Democratic voters. Since Republican hopes in California in ‘04 must rest on cutting into the Democratic partisan vote and doing well among independents, as both the recall and Schwarzenegger did, this does not bode well for GOP chances.

Or consider the economy, by all accounts a central cause of California voters’ desire to toss out Gray Davis. California voters currently give Bush a dreadful 39 percent approval rating on the economy–and that includes pathetic ratings of just 26 percent among independents and 16 percent among Democrats!

These are the voters who can supposedly be induced to vote for Bush in ‘04? Pardon DR for being just a wee bit skeptical. Especially since his other job ratings (except on reducing the terrorist threat) are equally bad. These include 46 percent on foreign affairs, 44 percent on taxes, 40 percent on the situation in Iraq, 39 percent on the environment, 36 percent on health care, 34 percent on energy policy, 34 percent on reducing unemployment, 33 percent on the federal budget deficit, 29 percent on his treatment of matters relating to California and 28 percent on Medicare.

But what if this election demobilized the Democratic base and mobilized many new Republican voters? Assuming this pattern carries over to 2004, a big assumption, wouldn’t that help Republicans in ‘04? DR is not persuaded this turnout-centered interpretation of Tuesday’s results is correct.

First of all, there were few new voters. Only 3 or 4 percent of Tuesday’s voters were first-time voters, depending on which exit poll (Edison Media Research or Los Angeles Times) you look at.

Second, exit polls do not give clear indications of Democratic demobilization. It is true that the Edison Media Research (EMR) exit poll has Democrats at just 39 percent of voters, compared to Republicans at 38 percent, in a state where Democrats have a 44 percent to 35 percent advantage. But the Los Angeles Times (LAT) exit poll has different figures–46 percent Democratic and 39 percent Republican–which are not far off the overall registration figures. The LAT poll also has figures available from 2002 (46 percent Democratic/40 percent Republican) and 1998 (48 percent Democratic/39 percent Republican), the last two off-year elections, and they do not indicate much change in Democratic or Republican turnout.

Thus, the voters who turned out don’t seem to have changed much, but they certainly were in a mood to “throw the bums out”. And in 2004 the bum in question is likely to be President Bush.


I agree that the numbers you site here are impressive and I also come to the conclusion that CA is not in danger of becoming "Reagan Country" again. However, NPR had an interesting segment today that reminded me of your work. While it is true most latinos voted democratic in this special election, it was also of note that a "sizable minority" also voted for Arnold S. The peice seem to suggest that the hispanic population in CA was begining to forgive the Republican party for the treatchery of Pete Wilson's policies that denied illeagal aliens access to public services in CA. How do you see his in relationship to your thoughts on developing coalitions within different ethnic groups to constuct a democratic majority? My feeling is that while most ethnic groups have historically leaned democratic, it is not necessarily a lock. We (democrats) still have to appeal to these populations and lay the ground work of good will to build a cohesive grass roots foundation that can carry the Democratic party through this century.

I would love to hear yours or anyones thoughts on this topic.


Paul - I think that this election was an example of an aberrant election. Especially with Arnold Schwarzennegger, who's such a big name in the acting world.

Paul -

If Schwarzeneggar surrounds himself with the Pete Wilson crowd, as he did during the campaign, he'll drive Latinos back toward the Dems.

Case in point is drivers licenses for undocumenteds, which Ahhnold has threatened to roll back by initiative. This is one of those cases where - even if polling showed a majority of Latino voters in favor of rollback - the initiative campaign itself would almost certainly end up racially tinged.

As I recall, this happened with the anti-immigration initiative (Prop 169?) that Wilson engineered. It initially polled fairly well even with Latinos, but ended up deeply offensive and costly to the GOP.

None of which is any excuse for Dems taking any part of their base for granted, but still a reminder that Ahhnold walks a delicate line.

Greg, it is true that the recall does not represent the rule with regards to traditional elections. The point I am trying to make is that as a whole the democrats have not always been so good at building strong coalitions. Rather, we seem to all come together at times to defeat a percieved threat to our collective interests. (I hope the 2004 elections is going to be one of those times). But if I were some one involved in the DLC in CA I would be thinking about ways of shoring up the hispanic base to ensure a higher voter turnout next November.

Now some may say that we live in a "winner takes all" election system and as long as we win the election with the majority is all that matters. However, the "winner takes all" phenomena is also true at the local, county and state rep level of politics as well and before we can really make a significant change in the state and federal governments we need to lay a populist foundation. This requires that we not take any ethnic group (least of all latino and hispanic populations) for granted.

Comments WELCOME :)

What would interest me is generation of immigrant. California (unlike some other areas of the country) currently has Hispanic Ethnics with multiple generations in the US. At what point does ethnic identity cease to be predictive of political identity?

As a survivor of four years of Jesse Ventura (from MN, and strongly DFL oriented) what concerns me most about California Recall is the lessons the Cal Dem Party learns from this -- or do they still seem tone deaf? I am much less certain this has much to do with voting blocks -- much more convinced the Dem Party really doesn't comprehend the necessity for promoting "interesting" candidates -- candidates that have a long term capacity to build a loyal following, as opposed to just generalized support.

Jesse, for instance, won his election in an environment in which the DFL party had engaged in a near year long endorsement contest among the sons of the party leaders of the 40's and 50's -- son of Hubert Humphrey against the son of Orville Freeman for example. It was a terrible party message. If your genes were not present at the Democratic Party merger with the Farmer Labor Party in 1944 -- well who were you??? I have a sense that California Dem's are rather caught in this kind of culture too -- and wonder how one gets the party culture sufficiently changed.

California has been living On The Outside for the duration of the Bush reign of lies and terror. This has hurt us CA folk.

If Arnold can get favors from Dubya (real ones, not like the broken promises to NYC after 9/11) he can certainly build up his hand for re-election and maybe do some good for the GOP. Certainly, turning CA into GOP electoral votes could guarantee Bush's re-election. There is a lot on the table here.

I think most people in CA feel that now that we have Der Schwarzenegger, we would like to see him succeed. Few outside the state realize what a mess we have. It was not Davis's doing (which Davis utterly failed to show), but we have a mess nonetheless.