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THE STATE

Contest Holds Public's Interest

A Times poll finds 99% of likely voters -- of all political stripes -- are following the recall campaign. But this may not reflect turnout.

August 23, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

California's Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall election has seized the attention of voters, no matter their political persuasion, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

A poll-record 99% of likely voters said they were interested in following the campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis, with 62% indicating that they were very interested, and 37% saying they were somewhat interested.

Although strong interest doesn't necessarily mean high turnout on election day, the findings suggest that Californians are tuning in to state politics with a fervor not seen in decades.

Voters paid much less attention to the November 2002 gubernatorial election, even in the final weeks of the race. A Times poll taken in late October showed that only 38% of likely voters said they were very interested in the matchup between Davis, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Bill Simon Jr. More voters, 47% percent, said they were only somewhat interested.

But this year's race is no ordinary contest. It's a special election, forced onto the ballot by nearly a million voter signatures and now starring an astonishing cast of 135 candidates.

It's not only novel -- the first time a California governor has faced a recall vote -- but it's a made-for-TV spectacle, electrified by the camera-ready candidacy of movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And perhaps most important to likely voters, the stakes are high for California's future. Voters of all ages, education and income levels, geographical areas and political parties voiced interest in the recall race, the poll found. Interest ran especially high among liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

Not since the Times Poll began asking respondents for their level of interest in an election have so many respondents expressed such interest in a gubernatorial race. In this sampling, the Times Poll interviewed 1,351 registered voters, including 801 likely voters, by telephone Aug. 16-21.

The margin of sampling error for likely voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

"I'm offended, even outraged, that Californians are now being faced with a recall," said Robert Unger, a 51-year-old lawyer from Oakland who said he is so engrossed in the campaign that he plans to research the legislative history of the state's recall provision. He suspects that recalls were meant only for crooked or criminal politicians.

"I'm not a great fan of Gray Davis," Unger, a liberal Democrat, said in a follow-up interview. "But I think it's pretty clear to a fair-minded person that the problems he is dealing with are primarily a function of the economy."

Across the state and at the opposite end of the political spectrum, Irene Clingman, a conservative Republican from Escondido, is following the recall race just as closely.

"It's important that we have a governor with strong leadership," said Clingman, another poll respondent. "That seems to be what we're lacking in Gray Davis.... All he's doing is spewing out how the Republicans are now trying to take over, instead of actually coming up with a plan himself."

Not surprisingly, people who are likely to vote are also likely to express interest in upcoming elections. In California's last five gubernatorial elections, about 85% of likely voters said they were very interested or somewhat interested in the race.

The exception was in 1994, when interest crescendoed in the spirited campaign over Proposition 187, the proposal to cut public education and health services to illegal immigrants. The proposition shared the ballot with Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and his Democratic rival Kathleen Brown.

That year, 97% of likely voters expressed at least some interest in the gubernatorial race.

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