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Davis' Lucky Number Is 56

August 10, 2003|Frank Schubert

With the recall set in motion, political junkies are searching for clues as to how the voting might go. We're about to be inundated with polls telling us whether the recall is ahead or behind. But this is a first-time event; we have no experience with another gubernatorial recall and no way to put early polling data into context. What is the significance of a 51% "yes" vote, as the Field Poll recently reported, or 56%, as some private polls say?

Some analysts argue that the closest model to the recall is California's substantial experience with ballot measures. Their thinking goes that asking voters about a gubernatorial recall is not much different from the hundreds of initiative questions asked on ballots over the years.

From this perspective, the early poll numbers indicate that Gray Davis is likely to survive as governor because a ballot measure that starts with support only in the mid-50% range historically has little chance of succeeding against a funded opposition campaign. Voters must be convinced of an idea in order to say yes. Those who are unsure or confused will almost always vote no. That's why the vast majority of contested ballot measures are defeated.

But California's experience with ballot-issue polling is of only limited use in evaluating the recall campaign. Voters face ballot-measure choices every election, and most of those measures have no real relevance to voters' lives. Understandably, voters make many ballot-issue decisions rather casually. But recalling a governor is no casual act.

A better prism through which the recall data may be viewed is the San Fernando Valley secession campaign. In that battle, San Fernando Valley voters perceived themselves as an aggrieved party. After decades of chafing under City Hall rule, they were prepared to take radical action to change their government. Agreeing to secession was not something Valley voters did casually, and once they decided to support secession, the polls finally showed, few later changed their minds.

In the secession campaign, initial polling in June 2002 showed that 58% of Valley voters would support secession. On election day, 51% of voters in the Valley actually voted yes. That means that 88% of all "yes" voters held their position despite a minimally funded pro-secession campaign and a $10-million opposition campaign.

There are differences between recall and Valley secession. For instance, not much new can be said about Davis, but a lot of new information was presented during the secession campaign. And certainly there are variables that will affect the final results, including turnout and developments in the campaign itself.

Still, compelling parallels between the recall and secession efforts remain. The present campaign involves an unprecedented action, as was the case in 2002. In the earlier case, voters faced not one but two related questions, as they do now: to secede (or to recall) and to then select a successor (a new mayor and council in the case of secession, a new governor with the recall). Voters in 2003 realize they are making a major decision, one not to be taken lightly, as was true in 2002.

In the case of recall, the aggrieved party is the entire state. With nearly 80% of the public believing California is headed in the wrong direction, voter discontent cuts across every demographic. If the phenomenon of voter decision-making seen in the Valley secession campaign holds true in the recall, almost all of those who favor the recall in initial polling will also vote for it Oct. 7.

So let's do the math. If 88% of all "yes" voters maintain their position throughout the recall campaign (as they did with secession), the "magic" number to look for in initial polling is 57%. Less than a 57% "yes" measurement means Davis has a chance; at 57%, his survival as governor is questionable; and with every point above 57%, we're probably looking at a new governor.

Frank Schubert, a Sacramento-based political consultant, has won 14 of the 16 statewide ballot-issue campaigns he has managed.

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