Trouble aheadHidden poll results show Gov. Davis faces broad voter recall support
I am continually bemused by what the media observes firsthand during political wars but often "cleans up" when it reports the news for public consumption. I saw this behavior in recent days as journalists covered the dopes trying to recall Gray Davis and the equally bufoonish goons trying to keep the Governor in office.
Everything-and I mean everything-the campaigns do from this moment forward will be, at bottom, an effort to influence public opinion polls as Davis hurtles toward the first recall vote against a governor in the United States since the 1920s.
What I observed at a press conference held by Rescue California, the group that appears likely to force the recall vote, was largely excised from news reports. But the unsanitized tidbits speak volumes about the two camps currently waging the battle to influence the polls.
The first telling moment came immediately after a July 14 news conference, held on the sun-drenched west steps of the Capitol, when Ted Costa, of People's Advocate, and Dave Gilliard, of Rescue California, were questioned by a Latina reporter from a Spanish-language TV station. "Excuse me?" she said politely, waving toward a microphone. "Who's giving interviews to the Spanish-language media?"
This question is routine at most California press conferences, but it piqued my interest. Polls indicate Latinos are a major Democratic group in favor of recalling Gray Davis. Latinos are potentially the Democrats' worst nightmare.
Latinos could go to the polls to oust Davis. Or they could do what they did last November, when, disgusted by Davis, they boycotted the gubernatorial election in droves and nearly threw the race to Republican Bill Simon.
So I wondered: who had the Republicans recruited to speak to Latinos at this well-attended Capitol press conference, just as the story was making national news? Would it be somebody big, like Mario Rodriguez, the hip, new vice chairman of the California Republican Party who is working to make the state GOP more inclusive?
Dave Gilliard returned a blank look to the Latina reporter. Clearly, it hadn't even crossed anyone's mind to have a Spanish speaker on hand.
This is just the sort of gaffe that tells you exactly how the California Republican Party still thinks. It's still as white as snow. It's still as out of it as a comatose patient in an intensive care ward.
"Uh, our Spanish-speaking representative is Bob Pacheco-Assemblyman Bob Pacheco," Gilliard said. "You can call him at his office."
At least Gilliard looked uncomfortable. That's what passes for social progress with California Republicans.
I told this story to Pat Caddell, former pollster for Jimmy Carter and a national Democratic commentator who was probably the first public figure to push the idea of recalling Davis last November. "California Republicans are the dumbest people I have ever met," Caddell harrumphed.
Not that the Democrats are a bargain. I didn't see this little tale emerge in many media reports, but the Democrats also showed a side they should not have unveiled.
Bob Mulholland, spokesman for the California Democrats, stole the show after the press conference. The media gathered close as the clownish Mulholland made loud comments about the supposedly bad people-like two convicted felons-the Democrats say were paid to gather some recall petition signatures.
It's curious why the Democrats are making an issue of this. Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has twice ruled that the backgrounds of the gatherers of petitions are not important. The court says that as long as signatures on petitions are verified as being from registered voters, the courts cannot interfere with the will of those voters. Such petitions are good. But for now, the Democrats are getting great media spin from their attacks on the petition-gatherers.
So whom does Mulholland loudly attack for gathering recall signatures?
"Voters should know the kind of people bused in to do the circulating!" Mulholland boomed. "The Republicans don't want judicial review of the types of people they had circulating petitions! The homeless! And convicted felons!"
Does the Democratic Party condone the idea that these jobs, which require no previous experience, should not be offered to the homeless? Perhaps the homeless are not even worthy of the right to vote?
I called Steve Smith, the well-to-the left laborista who Davis appointed as California's top labor bureaucrat in order to placate state labor unions.
The unions want to keep Davis as governor because they own him. You may recall that Davis in 2002 handed grotesque raises and perks to the California prison guards, including nearly full retirement at age 50. It was just one free-spending Davis decision in 2002 that helped break the piggy bank. The prison guards soon after handed Davis a contribution for $251,000.
Smith is now campaign manager for Taxpayers Against the Governor's Recall. Smith's spokesman, Nick Velasquez, assured me they'd call back, but by deadline they hadn't. Was it because their "two felons" allegation became so embarrassing after the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the two felons worked at Rescue California just a short time-and were then promptly hired to gather signatures by the Gray Davis side?
Mulholland's gaffe reveals an ugly side of the Democrats. While the California Republicans are social Neanderthals, the California Democratic Party's Achilles' heel is its blatant willingness to shift position, make things up, and then shift position again, in a Machiavellian dance of situational ethics. They're the party of smarms and sneaks, and they've lost their way under Chief Sneak Gray Davis.
The truth is that during this campaign, the Republicans and Democrats will both frenetically grandstand, grandly lie and go too far-and, in the process, accidentally reveal their true natures. And that is why two crucial questions now present themselves:
First, will the California media let the public in on the juicy and telling details that only the journalists and political insiders get to see on this campaign trail? Or will the California media-as is often, but not always, true-wrongly sanitize what they tell the public?
Second, will the public somehow pick its way through all this bull and form opinions that withstand the histrionics of the campaigns? Or will one side or the other snooker the public?
So far, the public seems fairly resilient to some pretty heavy spin. The Los Angeles Times Poll on July 4 showed some startling public attitudes-although Times editors chose not to print in their newspaper the most revealing questions of all.
The final question in the poll, for example, can be no comfort to Democrat strategists. Right now, big players like National Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe and former Al Gore strategist Chris Lehane are hotly accusing the California Republicans of trying to steal an election they lost, à la Florida. The Democrats are getting terrific media play over this accusation.
Lehane told a San Diego paper the recall is "a political circus maxima... analogous to what took place in Florida at the end of 2000."
The unpublished question in the Times Poll asked voters which they believed more: "The Republicans are attempting to reverse the outcome of the gubernatorial election they lost last November," or "The Republicans honestly believe that Gray Davis has mismanaged the state's finances."
Among registered voters, 53 percent believe the Republicans honestly think Davis mismanaged the finances, and 33 percent believe Republicans want to reverse the election. That 20-point spread means the Democrats' spin, despite fairly constant coverage, is falling flat. And incredibly, one-third of Democrats agreed Republicans are being honest.
Caddell points to another unpublished Times Poll finding: 60 percent of voters think it's sufficient enough reason to recall a governor if they do a poor job governing the state. "This is just explosive stuff," says Caddell. "It tells me the Democrats don't understand what they are facing, recall support is broad and we may be heading toward a huge turnout."
Darry Sragow, a respected Democratic strategist, says the unpublished final question from the Times Poll "is startling, fascinating" and tells him that the election-stealing argument "may very well get Democrats out to vote, but the argument does not an anti-recall campaign make."
Sragow hopes the big-time Davis strategists instead emphasize a major policy debate about the budget. He strongly believes Republican budget-cutting ideas will turn off voters.
But Caddell says the Times, by leaving out key findings in its news story on its own poll-and focusing on an iffy finding that Davis might scrape by if no Democrats are on the ballot to replace him-has given the Davis crowd a false sense of security.
"Their poll essentially refutes their news story," says Caddell. "The Times headline should have said the recall is viewed as a credible effort by voters, and there's a massive 20-point advantage to those who think it's credible over those who don't. That's staggering-it's a groundswell."
The real message could be that sometimes voters simply know what they know-and that no matter how much the media sanitizes information for public consumption, voters are getting wise to the Chief Sneak.