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Blue-Collar Democrats Cool on Davis

His positions on the car tax and immigration have cost him support within party, polls show.

October 06, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

Recapturing the loyalty of blue-collar and moderate-income Democrats has emerged as one of Gov. Gray Davis' most pressing problems as the recall election approaches.

In both public and private polls, Democrats with less income and education have displayed much higher support for the recall than more affluent and college-educated party members.

Even Democrats who belong to labor unions, ordinarily one of the party's most loyal constituencies, have been abandoning the governor in greater numbers than Democrats who don't belong to unions, according to the most recent Los Angeles Times poll.

"There's no burning enthusiasm for the governor," acknowledged Miguel Contreras, executive secretary and treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

"We have been around a lot of candidates where people had a real relationship with that candidate.... With this one initially, it was a little like trying to sell a tough product because the base vote was not enthusiastic."

The problem has not been that blue-collar Democrats are more strongly drawn to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the leading Republican candidate to replace Davis.

In the most recent Times Poll, conducted from September 25 through 29, Schwarzenegger drew the same level of support from Democrats with and without a college degree: 15%.

Instead, the Democratic defections appear to be driven by unhappiness with the governor. Much of that, according to Davis'

aides -- who have seen the pattern in their own polling -- involves three issues:

Democrats with moderate incomes and less education have responded more to Republican attacks on the increase in the car tax.

Those same Democrats also have been angered by Davis' decision to sign legislation allowing illegal immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses, said one senior Davis advisor.

At the same time, the advisor said, college-educated and more affluent Democrats appear more receptive to Davis' portrayal of the recall as part of a systematic Republican drive to overturn Democratic gains through means such as the impeachment of former President Clinton.

"Those Democrats have bought the argument that this is part of a national Republican effort," the advisor said.

Duf Sundheim, the state Republican chairman, offered a similar analysis of the Democratic divide. Upscale support for Davis, he said, "has more to do with views about the recall itself." But anger over the drivers' license bill, he added, was a huge factor in driving defections from Davis.

Indeed, the Times Poll found that attitudes among Democrats toward the drivers' license legislation closely correlated with opinions about the recall. Just 18% of Democrats who believed Davis made the right decision in signing the legislation backed the recall; but among those who opposed his decision, 42% supported his removal.

Among Democrats with a college degree, just 6% cited immigration or the drivers' license bill as the issue they most wanted the state to address; but those were the top priorities for nearly four times as many Democrats without a college degree, the survey found.

Dave Sickler, the Southern California regional director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council, agreed that both the car tax and drivers' license bill were significant hurdles in the unions' efforts to hold their members for Davis.

"It goes along racial lines unfortunately," Sickler said of the drivers' license bill. "You will find a lot of white members against it, and Latino members for it."

The irony is that signing the bill doesn't appear to have done Davis much good among Latinos, who are divided about evenly in attitudes toward the recall. Even 37% of Latino Democrats supported the recall in the Times survey.

The opposition to Davis among Democrats fits into a clear pattern of a division along class lines. The sort of blue-collar, lower middle-income and generally more culturally conservative voters known in the 1980s as Reagan Democrats -- because of their affinity to Ronald Reagan -- have turned dramatically against Davis.

In the Times poll, just 19% of Democrats with a college or postgraduate degree said they supported removing Davis from office, while 80% opposed the recall. By contrast, 33% of Democrats without a college degree supported the recall, while just 66% opposed it.

The same pattern was evident by income.

Among Democrats earning $40,000 a year or more, just 22% backed the recall; but fully 34% of party members earning less than $40,000 said they wanted to remove Davis.

The contrast is even more dramatic when compared to Davis' support in his reelection last fall. Virtually all the erosion in his support among Democrats since that race has come among less-affluent and less-well-educated voters.

When Davis won his reelection last year against Republican Bill Simon Jr., the governor received 80% of the vote among Democrats with a college degree, according to a Times exit poll.

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