Monday, September 8, 2003

When Mr. Brezhnev of the former Soviet Union toured the U.S. Senate, he met a Republican staff member. “The two-party system is a waste,” Brezhnev said. “We have only the Communist Party. It is much more efficient.”

“It is a little different here,” the Republican replied. “We have a two-party system. The Democrats, they are the ‘evil’ party.”

“Evil,” Brezhnev replied. “And what are you?”

“We,” the staffer replied, “are the stupid party.”

Are Republicans stupid? In California, they were involved in a petition campaign to gather signatures for the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. But the recall was headed for failure, until Rep. Darrell Issa paid to buy the needed signatures. But Mr. Issa decided not to run for governor. Now, with a month before the election, where is the campaign to recall Mr. Davis?. The candidates have their own campaigns, but there is no generic campaign against Mr. Davis.

It’s easy to understand why. After all, the unfavorable of Mr. Davis was high, even when Bill Simon ran against him last year. Mr. Simon probably wasted too much time attacking Mr. Davis, and not enough time making the case for himself. So, it may not seem necessary now to tell what voters what they already know. More recently, after Arnold Schwarzenegger declared his candidacy, pro-recall sentiment jumped from a 5-to-4 bare majority to a 2-1 strong majority. With numbers like that, why do you need to campaign against Mr. Davis?

Did the recall numbers peak? In any case, supporters of the recall must close the sale. Arnold and the recall are inextricably bound. Therefore, Arnold must do well for the recall to succeed. If Arnold’s campaign tanks, Mr. Davis could yet recover.

Regardless, the Democrats have a campaign against the recall. Already, it features two effective television commercials with Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The Democrats are unified behind one candidate — Cruz Bustamante. The Republicans are split between Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom McClintock and Peter Ueberroth. Fundamentally, there’s another issue. Republicans simply assume the recall is a certainty. In contrast, leading Democrats no longer write Mr. Davis off. Why should they, if there is no strong campaign for the wisdom of a recall?

It’s true that the Democrats’ campaign is schizoid: Cruz no longer even mentions Mr. Davis, and yet his own campaign has morphed “for legal reasons” into a contrived campaign against Ward Connerly’s Proposition 54 to prohibit race classification. As I have previously predicted, the scheme is to crank out nonwhite voters who, in turn, will vote no on recall. A neat trick, will the pro-Cruz Hispanics really vote no on recall?

Consider the sample ballot. The front cover says, “Your poll location may have changed.” The state is consolidating precincts to few locations, as if it’s a low- turnout election. This confusion lowers turnout. When you open the booklet, the instructions tell you to “remove any hanging chad.” This antiquated punch- card system is gone for the March 2004 primary, but still here for this election. The ballot itself features the main question in large type: “Shall Gray Davis be recalled (removed) from the office of governor?”

Then, it gets complicated. The 135 candidates for governor are listed on 7 pages. The list is not in alphabetical order. There are 80 versions of the ballot, so a candidate is not consistently on the same line. And, at the top of each page, this boldface admonition appears — “Reminder: Vote for only one candidate for governor.” Given the length of the ballot, many voters may vote for more than one candidate. Their ballot will be invalidated.

All this sounds technical. But it’s part of an election where voting by mail could account for one-third of the vote. Absentee voters complete their ballot under less pressure. While the Republican Party cannot unite behind a single candidate, many Republicans will be splitting their absentee vote.

How important are absentees? Twenty years ago, I wrote an analysis of the 1982 election for Public Opinion Magazine. On election day, Republican George Deukmejian lost to Democrat Tom Bradley. But he won the absentee ballots and became governor.

When Democrat Jerry Brown ran successfully for governor in 1974, absentee ballots were 3.4 percent of total votes cast. In 1982, when Republican George Deukmejian ran successfully for governor, absentee ballots doubled, to 6.7 percent of total votes cast. Their share of the total vote has steadily increased. And, as you read this, some absentee ballots are already being cast for governor.

Republicans pioneered in absentee ballots. They knew how to get people to apply, how to “chase” them to vote. That was then, and this is now. The Democrats have mastered the absentee drill. More generally, they have circled the wagons, mainly around Mr. Davis not Mr. Bustamante. Mr. Bustamante will get Latino voters to the polls. But the real question is, will they vote no on the recall, or drop the pretense and vote yes, to elect Cruz? We do know that Democrats are pulling out all the stops to energize the nonwhite vote that normally is under-represented in special elections.

Arnold is trying to run out the clock. He missed the first debate, because he knew his participation would mean high ratings, and more exposure for Mr. McClintock. Normally, voters don’t care if a candidate skips a debate. But this election could be different. That’s because Arnold has allowed an image that he is not serious. What is the cumulative effect of his contradictions and flip-flops?

They have kept Mr. Ueberroth and Mr. McClintock in the race.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist. He wrote textbooks on campaigns and media.

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