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Elections '96: A Voter Handbook | The Fight for Calfiornia:
Candidates for president, the Congress and the Legislature
are among those fighting for your attention and your
vote Tuesday. A look at the combatants.

Races Low on the Ballot Provide the Real Suspense

With Clinton almost sure to take California, the focus is on critical congressional and legislative contests.

November 03, 1996|BILL STALL | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In one of the most unusual election years in recent California history, the bottom of the ticket--those contests coming after the presidential race on the ballot--are driving the 1996 campaign to a potentially dramatic conclusion this weekend.

Political experts conceded the state's 54 electoral votes to President Bill Clinton in preelection interviews, but refused to forecast the outcome of critical congressional and legislative contests.

At stake in the legislative races is the balance of power in the state Assembly. And the outcome of congressional contests might help decide whether Republicans would retain control of the U.S. House.

Adding further drama to the campaign after months of tedium and public disinterest was a multimillion-dollar television advertising battle over Proposition 209, the affirmative action ballot initiative.

One statewide poll this week indicated that Proposition 209 was leading by only 5 percentage points, 46% to 41%, after winning strong public backing for more than a year.

The big unknown going into Tuesday's election is the level of voter turnout.

The official forecast of California Secretary of State Bill Jones was a turnout of 71% of registered voters, a record low for a national presidential election, and a little more than 11 million voters in all. The 1992 turnout was 75%.

Mervin Field, the founder of the Field Poll, said his surveys indicate an even lower turnout of about 10 million voters.

Field was asked if turnout might be low because Republicans are discouraged by the prospects of presidential candidate Bob Dole or because Democrats are so confident of Clinton's reelection that they wouldn't bother to vote.

"Both," he said.

The traditional rule of thumb is that low voter participation helps Republicans, who tend to be more diligent about going to the polls.

"The end game always comes down to turnout," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate School. "But I'm not sure the conventional wisdom holds this year with so much going on, with such fluidity."

Throughout the 58 counties, Californians will vote for president, their members of the U.S. House, all 80 members of the state Assembly, 20 of the 40 state Senate members, 15 state ballot propositions and a variety of local offices and measures.

The polls will be open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. in more than 25,000 voting precincts.

This has been an unusual election year in California from several standpoints.

First, the primary election was moved up to March from June in an attempt to increase the state's clout in the presidential nomination process. The ploy failed, but California still was left with a seven-month general election campaign.

Secondly, this was the first time since 1984 that California lacked a contest for major statewide office, either governor or U.S. senator.

Finally, the presidential contest in California was devoid of suspense.

"In California, it's remarkable that the die was cast early and despite the millions of dollars worth of advertising and the debates and the conventions, nothing has changed much," Field said.

Of the 15 state ballot propositions, three were bond issues placed there by the Legislature to raise $995 million for water projects, $700 million for correctional facilities and $400 million for farm and home loans to veterans.

The most controversial of the dozen measures put on the ballot by initiative petition was Proposition 209, which would amend the state Constitution to ban racial and gender preferences in state and local government, thereby ending affirmative action programs designed to assist women and minorities.

For months, polls indicated broad support for the measure among California voters. But as the election neared, the margin narrowed.

Field said one factor may be Dole's decision to campaign heavily in California on behalf of the controversial measure. Proposition 209 may be losing some of its support "because it has become a partisan issue," Field said.

Other major ballot issues would allow individuals to legally grow or possess marijuana for medical use; restrict campaign fund-raising and spending; make it easier for people to sue companies for securities fraud; raise the state minimum wage; place new limits on local government taxation authority; maintain the state's highest personal income tax rates, and impose new regulations on health care businesses.

As the election neared, however, there was also increased suspense over the outcome of about a dozen U.S. House seats and a like number of state Assembly races in districts scattered throughout the state.

"This is a big money year," said Sam Popkin, a political science professor at UC San Diego. "I've seen more ads for some Assembly races than I used to see for U.S. Senate races."

Republicans now control the Assembly with 41 seats to 37 for the Democrats and two seats vacant. Each party claims it is poised to win control of the Assembly. Jeffe is among those who declines to predict an outcome.

"It's too close to call," she said.

Californians also will fill 20 of the 40 seats in the state Senate, where Democrats now hold 22 to 16 for the Republicans and two independents. The GOP hoped to narrow the gap, but did not believe it could win control.

Even more critical, perhaps, was the election of the state's 52 members of the U.S. House. The delegation currently is split between 26 Republicans and 26 Democrats. The outcome in perhaps a dozen highly contested districts could determine whether Republicans maintain control of the House they won in the big GOP year of 1994.

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