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Airwave advantage might be fading out

September 10, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

As the California recall campaign moves into its final month, it continues to produce almost as many media surprises as political novelties.

One of those surprises, which involves the role of talk radio -- Arnold Schwarzenegger's presumptive ace in the hole -- is embedded in the findings of the most recent statewide survey of public opinion. The latest study by the nonpartisan Field Poll found that Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante continues to hold a five-point lead -- 30% to 25% -- over Schwarzenegger, who in turn leads his Republican rival, state Sen. Tom McClintock, by 12 points. The survey polled likely voters over five days ending Sunday and has a 4.5% margin of error either way.

Field's findings regarding Schwarzenegger are interesting on two counts:

One is that the action film star and former bodybuilder is struggling to increase his base of support among those Californians pollsters deem likely to cast a ballot. (Campaigns that somehow energize people who have not previously voted regularly are the sort that give pollsters nasty shocks; Schwarzenegger partisans are hoping this, like the first gubernatorial contest between the late Tom Bradley and former Gov. George Deukmejian, is one of them.)

Second, this latest survey confirms the findings of the most recent Times Poll in reporting that Schwarzenegger has a significant problem with women voters, who make up 50% of California's total electorate and 52% of its likely voters. The Times Poll found that fully 50% of the women inclined to vote hold an unfavorable impression of Schwarzenegger, while 41% see him in a positive light. Field reports that Bustamante now leads his chief Republican opponent by 13 points among likely women voters.

As the Field Poll's director, Mark DiCamillo, told the New York Times on Tuesday, "You can see, Bustamante's lead is all women."

GOP consultants frequently point out that women, Latinos and African Americans are the three pillars on which the Democrats' dominance of statewide politics rests. However, Field finds Schwarzenegger running quite respectably among likely minority voters. In fact, even among Latinos -- who might be expected to overwhelmingly support the first Mexican American in modern times with a shot at the governor's mansion -- Schwarzenegger trails Bustamante by just 10 points. More than one in four likely Latino voters surveyed by Field said they planned to vote for the Republican front-runner, while 43% said they held a favorable impression of him.

So, why the problem with women?

First, of course, there's the fact that much of Schwarzenegger's recent celebrity is built around his career as a star in ultraviolent action films, whose audience overwhelmingly consists of young men. These are the sorts of movies most women forbid their younger children to watch on cable and scold their adolescent sons for renting.

Then, there's the matter of the notorious Oui magazine interview. Schwarzenegger now alleges that he lied about engaging in group sex and other casual intimacies in order to promote the film "Pumping Iron." Men may be inclined to accept that, since most learn early in life that two things you never take at face value are your barber's tips on horses and other guys' stories about their sex lives. Women, on the other hand, may be more likely to be put off by a man's impulse to make up that kind of story and to wonder whether a person willing to lie that way to promote a film might later deceive to advance his political ambitions.

Finally, and far less obviously, there's the pivotal role that AM talk radio has played in promoting Schwarzenegger's candidacy. It has been true for some time that AM talk is almost entirely the preserve of the right wing. Within the universe of California media, conservative radio talk show hosts have been the recall's most consistent and passionate advocates. When the majority of them also appeared to make "Arnold" their candidate early in the race, it seemed a clear win for Schwarzenegger.

But, as the Times and Field polls suggest, it may have been a Pyrrhic victory. Like the action film audience, AM talk radio's listeners are overwhelmingly male. The prevailing industry wisdom holds that the talk audience is 60% male to 40% female. However, many shows now have gender gaps the size of sports talk, where 75% of the listeners are men. An unnamed "senior advisor" to Schwarzenegger's campaign conceded to the New York Times on Tuesday that "Arnold's" reliance on friendly talk show hosts has alienated many women.

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