Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Muscling Toward the Finish Line

[[C A M P A I G N S]] * I just returned home from five days spent in Los Angeles--which would explain why my blog entries have been spotty of late, and why my usually Seattle-pale skin seems to have picked up some color. (The City of Angels weather stayed in the 80s and sunny throughout my visit. What more could I have wanted?) And if there was anything I noticed during my time in Southern California, it was the plenitude of TV spots either boosting or bashing the quartet of special-election ballot initiatives Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is hoping to see passed by voters next week. With polls showing all four of his favored measures lagging behind, the bodybuilder turned actor turned Republican politician has been stumping hard. He’s banking on the success of at least one or two of those initiatives to give him some momentum going into his re-election campaign next year, and in the meantime to lift his sagging job approval ratings. (According to SurveyUSA, Schwarzenegger’s favorability rating is just 33 percent, making him the fourth most unpopular governor in the nation--after only two years in office.)

You can tell that Schwarzenegger’s getting desperate. His latest ads show a more humble guv than the “girlie man”-hating tough guy who thought he could sweep Democratic opponents aside with the power of his personality and Hollywood cachet. And Reuters reports that the four initiatives he’s touting--to make it more difficult for teachers to earn tenure, restrict the use of public employee union dues, cap state spending and increase the governor’s control over that budget, and deny legislators the power of redistricting--might actually be suffering as a result of Schwarzenegger’s backing. “What we are seeing this year is that he’s pretty much worn out his welcome, especially with Democrats and with nonpartisans,” says pollster Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll. “It almost has a counter-productive impact in this year’s campaign.”

Aside from being dogged by scandals (such as those surrounding “hush-money” payments made to a former lover and the suppression of a sexually suggestive Playboy video in which he starred), and having lost his bipartisan support by cozying up to George W. Bush and vetoing a popular, groundbreaking bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in California, Schwarzenegger’s biggest problem, it seems to me, is that he seriously misinterprets the meaning of the recall election that sent him to Sacramento in the first place. He contends that his 48.6 percent win in that tremendously divided election, which saw Democrat Gray Davis become only the second governor in U.S. history (after North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier) to be recalled from office, was representative of widespread support in the Golden State for his agenda. However, what it really represented was dissatisfaction both with Davis and with the Democratic lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, who sought to step into Davis’ shoes. Schwarzenegger benefited by name familiarity, as well as by the potential that he could become as successful a California performer turned politician as Ronald Reagan had been before him; and voters figured he couldn’t be any worse than Davis. But what Schwarzenegger has demonstrated more than anything else over the last two years is that celebrity will only get a pol so far; to win continued backing requires that he or she demonstrate a working knowledge of the traditional levers of government. Schwarzenegger has sought instead to subvert “the system” by taking his causes “to the people.” That sounds good; yet it just demonstrates a lack of experience with the way things are done in modern American legislating. The guv’s repetitious insistence that he’s not a politician has grown old, fast, and it reminds voters of his core inadequacies for the job they elected him to fill. It hasn’t helped, either, that he’s demonstrated a classic politician’s tone-deafness and hypocrisy, raising $76 million for his re-election campaign over the last two years, after criticizing Davis’ success at pulling in $26 million for his own re-election over a longer, five-year span. So disillusioned are California voters, that there’s already a Schwarzenegger recall effort up and running.

A story in today’s Los Angeles Times reports that the guv still anticipates winning approval for the four ballot measure’s he’s been backing--but do so may require that he suppress voter turnout, especially among Democrats. In order to accomplish this, the paper says, Schwarzenegger’s plan is to “micro-target” Republican and other conservative voters, “advertising in selected markets to reach them and conducting daily polls to augur the political mood.” As the Times explains, it’s always harder to get voters out for an off-year election, and the aggressive “just say no to Schwarzenegger” campaign might in fact have the effect of reducing the number of people who go to the polls next Tuesday. But in California, a state where registered Democrats hold a 43 percent to 34 percent edge over Republicans, suppressing the vote sufficiently to swing the election in favor of Schwarzenegger’s initiatives might require more money and influence than the guv has available.

UPDATE: A new Los Angeles Times poll finds three out of four of Schwarzenegger’s favored ballot measures failing (with the public evenly divided on Proposition 74, which would increase the probationary period for public school teachers). It also shows the actor-politician himself trailing both of his Democratic rivals in the 2006 gubernatorial race. State Treasurer Phil Angelides (D) leads Schwarzenegger in this survey by a margin of 37 percent to 34 percent, while State Controller Steve Westly (D) leads 38 percent to 33 percent.

ADDENDUM: The same SurveyUSA poll that found Schwarzenegger so unpopular doesn’t bode well for his companions in the bottom five among U.S. governors. That list of the endangered incumbents looks like this:

46. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska): 34 percent approve; 60 percent disapprove.
47. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-California): 33 percent approve; 65 percent disapprove.
48. Matt Blunt (R-Missouri): 33 percent approve; 61 percent disapprove.
49. Ernie Fletcher (R-Kentucky): 32 percent approve; 61 percent disapprove.
50. Bob Taft (R-Ohio): 19 percent approve; 77 percent disapprove.

By contrast, who are the most popular state governors in the nation? The honors go to ...

1. Jodi Rell (R-Connecticut): 77 percent approve; 18 percent disapprove.
2. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota): 77 percent approve; 20 percent disapprove.
3. Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota): 75 percent approve; 20 percent disapprove.
4. John Lynch (D-New Hampshire): 70 percent approve; 21 percent disapprove.
5. Dave Freudenthal (D-Wyoming): 67 percent approve; 26 percent disapprove.

READ MORE:Voters Dislike 3 of Governor’s Ballot Measures,” by Michael Finnegan (Los Angeles Times); “Governor Losing His Star Power in Special Election,” by Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross (San Francisco Chronicle); “Is the Terminator in Free-Fall?” by Marc Cooper (The Nation); “Channeling Hiram,” by Joe Matthews (Los Angeles Times).

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