Score the summer round for Gov. Gray Davis. A new poll shows just how one-sided this contest has been.
It's not merely that Davis leads Bill Simon by 11 percentage points among likely voters, 41% to 30%, in the survey by pollster Mark Baldassare for the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
It's worse than that for Simon: Voters think Davis is the more ethical.
Asked who they believe would "do a better job of maintaining high ethical standards in government," the nod goes to Davis by 43% to 28%.
This is the same governor, after all, who has set the all-time state record for raking in special
interest money. The guy who's highly vulnerable, Simon thinks,
to the charge that he demands "pay for play," favoring political donors in policy decisions. The unpopular chief executive who
has been the subject of
countless news stories implying sleaze.
And it gets even worse for the Republican nominee: Fewer Republican voters (33%) are satisfied with their choices for governor than are Democrats (41%).
This runs counter to the thesis that so many liberal Democrats are disappointed with Davis that they'll markedly help Simon by boycotting the governor on election day. Simon has even more disappointed Republicans to worry about.
"Many people who dislike Davis don't feel Simon would necessarily do a better job," Baldassare says.
One indication of that is this finding: Of the voters who disapprove of Davis' job performance, only 53% support Simon. A mere 43% approve of the way Davis has handled his job, while 52% disapprove--basically the same as six months ago.
So why is all this possible? Why are Davis' ethics thought to be superior? Why are Simon's fellow Republicans so unhappy with their ballot options?
One major reason is that Davis has been pummeling Simon with TV ads all summer, attacking his integrity and acumen as a businessman. "We've done serious damage to the guy," says Garry South, Davis' chief strategist.
Davis began running TV ads in early June and since then has poured $11 million into air time, South estimates. That's probably 10 times what Simon has spent on TV.
Paradoxically, a lot of special interest money Davis has taken heat for raising, he's now using to sully the integrity of his opponent.
There also has been, South points out, "a classic case of harmonic convergence."
Davis' attack ads have been corroborated, in many voters' minds, by real-life events: a jury ordering the Simon family investment firm to pay a former partner $78 million in fraud damages, an IRS investigation of a Simon offshore tax shelter, corporate scandals reflecting badly on any rich businessman- candidate....
And while Davis has been running all-out, Simon has laid back, saving for the post-Labor Day sprint to election day.
"The conventional wisdom that things don't start until Labor Day has not been the case in recent gubernatorial elections," Baldassare notes.
"Important things happen in those dog days of summer. People get a chance to know the candidates in a leisurely manner. A lot of Californians want to make up their minds and move on to other things."
Examples: In 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson passed front-running challenger Kathleen Brown during the summer and won in a breeze. In 1998, Davis began outrunning Republican Dan Lungren in August.
This summer, Baldassare found, 74% of voters are "closely" following news about the race and 71% have seen a campaign commercial.
Simon's chief strategist, Sal Russo, isn't buying. But part of the reason is that Russo hasn't had enough money for a big TV buy anyway. As of June 30, Simon had only $5 million in the bank. Davis had $31.6 million.
"It's been too early. Voters are tuned out, not focused on politics," Russo insists. "Why'd you want to be advertising?
"Our numbers are ready to come back up as soon as we
can tell our story. And people want to hear a story about somebody who would be a
better governor than Gray Davis. People don't like him. They think he has been a failed governor. Between now and election day, voters are going to hear the other side."
That's also South's plan. He wants to tell the other side of Davis.
South's summer strategy has been to bury Simon so deep in mud that he can never dig out. But for the fall round, he'd like to run more "positive" ads--pitching Davis' record--and restore the governor's once-shining image.
That will be harder than beating Simon.