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California Election Issues Brought Out Conservatives


While California remains predominantly Democratic turf, the electorate took on a conservative tinge Tuesday, with an upsurge of Republican voters that probably contributed to the narrow defeat of a ballot initiative that would have made it easier to pass school bonds.

A hot presidential primary fight and an initiative to bar the state from recognizing gay marriages both are likely to have contributed to the higher Republican turnout, analysts said. Turnout hit a 20-year record in Orange County but was relatively low in heavily Democratic Los Angeles and San Francisco counties.

Overall, many of the decisions made on Tuesday reflected the finding by the Times exit poll that voters believe things are going well in California--so well that they generally balked at launching any new crusades, whether sanctioning gay marriages or approving new rights to sue insurance companies.

Convinced 2 to 1 that California is on the right track, most voters cast their lot with the status quo. They may even be growing more tolerant of career politicians. Voters rejected a term limits measure for the first time in a decade, and a quirky anti-politician initiative that sought to add a "none of the above" option to state and federal ballots also failed.

Voters "don't feel a need to send messages," said Democratic campaign consultant Darry Sragow. "Voters are not angry."

The exit poll showed that 92% of the electorate believes the economy is strong. Feeling flush, voters showed a generous side, supporting four bond measures totaling $4.6 billion to finance parks acquisition, new water projects, libraries and veterans homes. The bond money will be repaid out of existing state taxes.

Conservatives Led in Killing Bond Plan

The strong conservative turn-out, however, contributed to voters' refusal to water down the state constitutional requirement that local school construction bonds be approved by a two-thirds majority.

Proposition 26, which would have reduced that requirement to a simple majority vote, failed, 51% to 49%. The loss came even though the exit poll showed that education remains the No. 1 public issue and supporters, armed with $23 million, outspent their opponents by more than 10 to 1.

"The two-thirds vote is such a sacrosanct part of California's political culture," said Garry South, chief political consultant to Gov. Gray Davis, one of the leading backers of Proposition 26. "Even when people agree with the aims and purpose of the attempt to reduce it, the underlying threat to the principle is sufficient to defeat it."

The exit poll showed that Democrats supported Proposition 26 by 2 to 1. But Republicans opposed it by an even larger 70% to 30%. Independents also opposed it, though by narrower margins. The exit poll used interviews with 4,106 people at selected precincts statewide. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

The schools initiative lost among people 45 and older--who are more likely to be homeowners subject to property tax hikes--while younger voters supported it. It won by wide margins among blacks, Latinos and people with lower incomes, but lost among whites and Asians. People in households with incomes of $60,000 or more opposed it 55% to 45%.

If election turnout had followed the pattern of the past few years, Proposition 26 probably would have passed.

Tuesday's electorate, however, was whiter and more male than usual, according to the exit poll. Latinos made up 7% of the electorate on Tuesday, down from 12% in the 1998 primary, for example. Whites made up 74% of the voters in the 1998 primary. They were 81% this time.

Not counting absentees, turnout among registered Republicans rose 10 points between the presidential primary four years ago and Tuesday's vote--from 44% to 54%, according to Secretary of State Bill Jones. By contrast, the 48% turnout among Democrats was up only slightly over four years ago, even though the Democratic nomination was uncontested in 1996.

Of the GOP voters Tuesday, 25% identified themselves as evangelical Christians, up from 18% in the primary in 1996, according to the Times exit poll.

Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus and other experts believe conservatives were drawn to the polls by the contested Republican presidential race and particularly Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign attack on conservative Christian leaders. Proposition 22, the initiative that prohibits California from recognizing gay marriages, also probably boosted turnout among evangelical Christians and other conservatives. Proposition 22 won, 61% to 39%.

Whether the March vote will translate into Republican gains in November remains to be seen. Republican consultant Wayne C. Johnson cited the large Republican vote, and said "there is a half-life to that that may extend to November."

Democrats, however, remain confident that Vice President Al Gore, their presumptive nominee, will carry California and boost other Democrats.

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