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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Primary Political Questions Await State's Answers

March 06, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Call it the political big bang phenomenon. California is about to feel its impact for the first time.

We'll learn Tuesday what happens when an open primary and an early primary and a hot presidential race all collide.

Never before have Californians been able to cross over into another party and vote for any presidential candidate they choose, even if it is only a "beauty contest" that allocates no delegates. This time, the California primary comes early enough to actually mean something in the national nominating process. And at least one race is genuinely exciting.

All this will converge to draw normally apathetic nonvoters to the polls. Theoretically.

What kind of voter mix will be produced? What effect will it have on the ballot propositions, the backbone--and bane--of California politics?

For example, will it help or hurt Prop. 26, which would lower the vote requirement for local school bonds from two-thirds to a simple majority? What about proposals to permanently ban gay marriages, impose limits on campaign financing, legalize Nevada-style casinos on Indian reservations, authorize bond spending for parks, water projects, libraries, crime labs and veterans homes?

Specifically, will the fierce battle for the Republican presidential nomination create a more conservative or a more moderate electorate?

If rock-ribbed Republicans rally in unusually large numbers to support establishment candidate George Bush, the electorate will be skewed to the right. But if maverick John McCain can attract to the polls ordinarily nonvoting conservative Democrats and independents--the growing "declined to state" group that previously has been barred from presidential primaries--the mix will tilt to the middle.

Pollsters, pundits and poli-sci profs now can only speculate because California never has experienced this before. And many pols are nervous.

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"I feel like I've had whiplash," says Gale Kaufman, chief strategist for Prop. 26, the school bond measure.

Ten days ago, monitoring nightly tracking polls, Kaufman saw McCain rolling into California as a populist hero, attracting new voters daily. He had just won Michigan and his home state of Arizona. "It looked like we were headed for a humongous turnout," she says.

"Now I'm not so sure."

In the last week, the senator has stumbled badly. He pulled out of a Times/CNN debate, seemingly giving up on California; then reversed again and appeared by satellite, turning in a subpar performance. He looked more pugnacious than presidential in attacking Christian conservative leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and immediately lost primaries in Virginia and Washington state. He abandoned his "straight talk" by first denying, then acknowledging, running anti-Bush "Catholic Alert" phone calls in Michigan.

A recent Times poll shows why McCain's popularity matters to Kaufman. Prop. 26 was favored by 50% to 38%, with 12% undecided. Democrats and independents supported it; Republicans were opposed. But the survey also found something just as significant: McCain's and Bush's supporters hold opposite views. Prop. 26 was favored by 53% of McCain's followers and opposed by 58% of Bush's.

Kaufman says she has to act on the assumption that there'll be a big turnout, perhaps the 52% that California Secretary of State Bill Jones has predicted. Therefore, she has mailed an extra 500,000 campaign fliers. They're targeted at Republican women, who tend to be concerned about schools, and independents, who have been drawn to McCain.

Prop. 26 can use all the McCain voters the underdog can muster.

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Conversely, McCain and Bush voters are in sync on the anti-gay marriage initiative, Prop. 22. They're solid supporters and it was ahead 57% to 36% in the Times poll. The Indian gambling measure, Prop. 1A, had an even bigger lead, 64% to 29%, and is not likely to be affected by the turnout.

But the voter mix will affect the campaign finance proposal, Prop. 25. Most Republicans probably will oppose its smidgen of public financing, but independents and Democrats normally support political "reform." Republicans also are less likely than Democrats to vote for bond issues.

The consensus of consultants, based on nightly polling, is that McCain has peaked in California and is sliding downhill. He may not generate a huge turnout after all. But many voters may show up unexpectedly anyway, attracted by all the hullabaloo.

"People are talking about it in coffee shops and bars," says GOP consultant Richard Temple. "It's like an event."

It's definitely a new political dynamic.

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