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Negative Campaign Repelled Some Voters

A Times exit poll finds alienation of Latinos and African Americans also kept turnout low.

November 11, 2002|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

A slashingly negative campaign and alienation among blacks and Latinos combined to produce the record low turnout last week that gave Gov. Gray Davis the political fright of his life. A lack of competitive legislative and congressional races, as well as the absence of substantive debate, also contributed to the widespread apathy and estrangement, according to experts assessing the mass voter boycott.

"Usually, high turnout is built on hot issues and hot campaigns," said one political analyst, Antonio Gonzalez. "In this election we had neither."

A scant 44.9% -- or roughly 6.9 million people -- of California's registered voters went to the polls Tuesday, according to the secretary of state's office, which keeps the official tally. Roughly 750,000 absentee votes were cast; when those have been counted it is expected that the turnout will rise to just about 50% of California's 15 million registered voters.

That would be the lowest turnout in any statewide race since reliable record keeping began in California in 1910. The previous low was four years ago, when 58% of Californians showed up at the polls.

The shrunken turnout also changed the makeup of Tuesday's electorate from the one that gave Davis his first term in a 20-point landslide in 1998. Davis won reelection against his badly battered opponent, Los Angeles businessman Bill Simon Jr., by a closer-than-expected 47% to 42%.

The electorate Tuesday was much whiter and slightly more Republican than in 1998, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll.

White voters made up 76% of the electorate, compared with 64% four years ago. Democratic turnout declined slightly, from 48% to 46%, but the percentages of Republicans and independents increased from 39% to 40% Republican and 8% to 10% independent.

The most dramatic shift came in the falloff of minority voters -- the Democratic base -- which also helps explain the dramatic drop in Davis' support.

Latinos declined from 13% of the electorate in 1998 to 10% on Tuesday, the first drop in Latino turnout since it began steadily rising in California in 1986. The falloff in the black vote was even more dramatic, from 13% to 4% of the statewide electorate, according to the exit poll. Translated, that means that roughly 800,000 fewer African Americans and 350,000 fewer Latinos cast ballots Tuesday than in 1998.

The flagging of enthusiasm among core Democratic groups was most evident in the high stay-at-home rates in the party strongholds of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Alameda counties, where combined turnout fell by more than 12% from 1998.

Turnout in Republican counties also slipped, but the absent Democratic voters and the decision of some party voters to side with minor candidates combined to cut dramatically into the governor's showing. Davis won 1.7 million fewer votes than he had in 1998, before all the absentee ballots were counted, but Simon got only about 400,000 fewer than the 1998 GOP nominee Dan Lungren.

At least part of the reason for the falloff was a lack of serious competition in the 113 legislative and congressional races across California. That resulted from the redrawing of the state's political boundaries in a bipartisan incumbent-protection plan, which eliminated true competition in all but about a dozen of the contests on Tuesday's ballot.

"We always depend on the big races, especially where there's congressional and legislative races in the same area, to push turnout of our base constituencies," said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic strategist involved Tuesday in several contests. "This time there weren't enough of those to have any impact."

But analysts say the biggest factor throwing a soggy blanket over the electorate was the unremittingly negative tone of the campaign waged by the two leading candidates for governor. In a testament to their dubious achievement, Davis and Simon both ended the campaign disliked by roughly six in 10 of those who bothered to vote, according to the Times poll. Anecdotally, the distaste among those who refused to vote was even more vehement.

Strategy No Secret

Strategists for Davis, who was widely unpopular heading into his reelection campaign, made no secret of their strategy: Destroy his opponent so that voters, however grudgingly, would see the incumbent as a preferable alternative.

Garry South, the mastermind of Davis' campaign, called the contest "damaged goods versus defective product." So the governor and his strategists "bludgeoned Simon with a blunt object, and it was not a pretty sight," South said.

But it proved devastatingly effective -- and greatly off-putting.

Negative campaigning "just drops the mood of the electorate like a rock," said Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley's Institute for Governmental Studies.

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