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Little Excitement for California Race for Governor - 2002-10-25

There is little excitement in California about the race for governor, according to voter surveys. The incumbent Democrat, Gray Davis, is leading in the polls, while Republican challenger Bill Simon is trailing. But neither candidate is popular. Analysts say both parties must redefine their message to appeal to future voters.

In the race for California governor, the Democratic incumbent leads by as much as 10 percent in voter polls. But the same surveys show that most voters are taking little notice of the campaign and dislike both men.

For political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California, that is a little frightening. "For the first time in a long time, residents of the sixth largest economy in the world, the largest state in the United States, the capital of the Pacific Rim, don't care, don't like the choice that they have for a leader," he says.

In this mid-term election, voters will not select a U.S. president, and interest is inevitably lower than in presidential elections. Moreover, the voters will not select either of California's two U.S. senators. Both serve six-year terms, and neither ends this year. But the voters will elect California's 53-member congressional delegation, and have the ability to shift the balance power in the House of Representatives in Washington. That is unlikely to happen.

Voters will also choose 80 state assembly members and half of California's 40 state senators. Democrats are dominant in both California houses and are expected to remain so. Few seats in the state legislature, or the U.S. Congress, are expected to change hands.

Political pollster Mark Baldassare says despite limited interest in the election, especially the governor's race, California voters are concerned with a number of issues. Mr. Baldassare is research director of the Public Policy Institute of California, and he summarizes results of a recent survey. "Californians said that schools were the most important issues to them, the economy was very important, state budget and taxes," he says. "Nine out of 10 Californians can name issues that they say they want the candidates to talk about, but not nine out of 10 can talk about the fact that they've heard from the candidates on these issues."

The leading candidates for governor have held just one debate. Most people said it was not helpful. Mr. Baldassare adds that three-quarters of those interviewed have seen campaign commercials. "But most say that those commercials have really not helped them understand where the candidates stand on the issues," he says.

Forty-five percent of Californian voters are registered as Democrats; 35 percent are Republicans. But pollsters say one in six California voters is independent, with no party affiliation. Mr. Baldassare says, if Republicans hope to succeed, they must appeal to those voters. "And in recent elections, Republicans have had candidates who the Democrats have successfully been able to define as too conservative for the independent voters, and the Republicans have not created the kind of message of hope or optimism that maybe Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s, that appealed to independent voters or conservative Democrats," he says.

For former President Reagan, the California governorship was a springboard to higher office. For Governor Gray Davis and challenger Bill Simon, the office of governor is less likely to be a stepping stone into national politics.

Republican strategist Dan Schnur says Governor Davis is so unpopular that even a novice campaigner like Bill Simon has come within striking distance of winning the race, despite a campaign that one Republican called the worst run in the country.

While Mr. Schnur hopes for a turnaround, other Republicans are resigned to another term for Democrat Gray Davis. They hope to change their party's fortunes in the next U.S. senate election two years from now, or the next campaign for governor two years later. Mr. Schnur believes, in order to succeed, his party must target women, whom it has not persuaded to vote Republican. "To some degree, that's a conversation about abortion rights, but much more broadly and much more importantly, it's a conversation about education, about health care, about child care, about the environment, other issues that tend to motivate women voters more than men, issues on which the Democrats have been more successful over the past few [election] cycles," he says.

Mr. Schnur is urging his fellow Republicans to embrace those issues themselves.

These analysts say both parties share a problem: California's system of primary elections for selecting candidates tends to attract the most committed, partisan voters from the left and the right, making it difficult for moderates to get their party's nomination. Moderates, however, stand a better chance of winning the general election, like the one that is coming up November 5. These analysts say that moving too far to the left or right spells disaster in California, where voters want issues addressed but remain politically centrist.