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The Authoritative Guide to Why Bill Simon Lost By: Arnold Steinberg
Human Events | Thursday, November 21, 2002


Mr. Steinberg is a political strategist who was instrumental in electing many conservatives against great odds. The long list would include United States senators such as Jim Buckley in New York and Jesse Helms in North Carolina, and such members of Congress Phillip Crane in Illinois and Bob Dornan in California. He has written two graduate textbooks on political campaigns and media. He has created hundreds of television and radio commercials and conducted more than 1,500 polls and focus groups. Human Events asked him for a post mortem on the California election.

"I’ll leave it to all the know-it-alls about what if we did this or what if we did that."

Bill Simon, quoted in the Sacramento Bee, Nov. 9, 2002

It doesn’t get much better for conservatives.

Normally, the party of the President loses seats in the House of Representatives and even in the U.S. Senate. This time, Republicans added House seats and regained control of the Senate.

Why did the higher-than-expected turnout for this year’s midterm election favor Republicans? Why did core constituencies fail to deliver the vote for Democrats? Surely, President George W. Bush deserves enormous credit for the Republican tide that swept the nation on November 5.

But something remarkable also happened in California. The state legislature had drawn district lines that supposedly insured dominance by the Democrats, and Democrats outspent Republicans by wide margins in these legislative races. Yet, Republicans have apparently won the only competitive state senate seat with most of the final absentees counted. And Republicans gained two seats in the state assembly. Also, in the 30th Assembly District, where Democrats outspent Republicans by 10 to 1, the final result could go either way.

Democrats outspent Republicans in every race for statewide office. It came as no surprise that Republicans lost. The Republican candidate for insurance commissioner, Gary Mendoza, is nonetheless thought to have a bright future as a Republican candidate for statewide office in the next few years. The very liberal Sacramento Bee endorsed Mendoza.

The one cliff-hanger where a GOP victory is still possible, depending on the final count of absentees, is the race for state controller, in which conservative Tom McClintock faced the deep pockets Steve Westley, who outspent McClintock six to one, pouring millions into television ads attacking McClintock for opposing abortion. Yet, even the very liberal and very pro-choice San Francisco Chronicle endorsed McClintock ("Fiscal conservatism seems to pervade every inch of his body. . . . Even Democrats who are inclined to support the governor’s re-election should consider voting for McClintock as a check.") And, win or lose, McClintock did better than any other Republican statewide candidate.

Defeat of Proposition 52

Republicans in California scored an upset victory on a critical ballot initiative, Proposition 52. By way of background, the Golden State has led the nation for a generation in trend-setting ballot propositions that then have been copied elsewhere. The most famous, of course, was the Jarvis-Gann Property Tax Relief Measure of 1978, Proposition 13. But there have been many others. For example, Proposition 209, the 1996 campaign for which I served as principal strategist, appealed broadly in an outreach campaign to Californians and won handily in a difficult year for Republicans. It prohibited race preferences. A similar measure passed two years later in the State of Washington. And, in 1998, Californians passed Proposition 227 to prohibit bilingual education, so that children could be taught English. Similar measures now have been passed elsewhere.

Liberal Democrats also use the initiative process to suit their public policy objectives. This year, California Democrats hoped to set a powerful national precedent with a radical plan to change election rules here.

Proposition 52 would have allowed supposedly eligible residents to register to vote on Election Day. Under this scheme, illegal immigrants and others could use utility bills and junk mail as identification to register on Election Day, and then vote. People could vote in even more than one location. That’s because their ballots would be mixed with other votes cast, and it would, in effect, be impossible to challenge them later, that is, to put the genie back in the bottle.

Rob McKay, the heir to the Taco Bell fortune and a champion of leftist causes, put Proposition 52 on the ballot. McKay ‘s "Yes on 52" campaign spent $10 million, most of it for misleading, slick television commercials that depicted Proposition 52 as an anti-election fraud measure.

Conservative Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, who represents part of Orange County, led the statewide campaign against Proposition 52. "No on 52" targeted the state’s opinion molders and newspapers for special attention. Even the normally predictably liberal Los Angeles Times ended up opposing Proposition 52. Royce’s cost effective No on 52 campaign spent only $300,000, but it defeated Proposition 52 in a landslide, 59% no, to 41% yes.

If Proposition 52 had passed, it would have allowed Democrats to "move" people into districts on Election Day to tilt hard-fought elections. Also, it would have meant that if President Bush had a chance to carry California in 2004, and the election were close, an army of street people possibly could have tipped the balance. Finally, it would have been a dangerous precedent for other states.

Focus on Governor’s Race

The main focus in California was on the big prize. Who would be governor of the largest state in the country? Both of California’s U.S. senators are Democrats and the state legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic. The state’s growing Latino share of the electorate has been ambivalent, or even hostile, toward Republicans. Four years ago, Gray Davis defeated Dan Lungren by nearly 20 points. Now, Davis, who had served as state assemblyman, state controller, and lieutenant governor, was running for reelection as governor.

But the Davis tenure has been a disaster for California. Davis did not take the state’s energy crisis seriously until it was too late, and then mishandled it completely. He ineptly negotiated long-term energy contracts at prices very unfavorable to the state’s residents. For many people and small businesses, electricity rates have increased 40%. And, in the process, Davis has turned a large state surplus into a deficit of at least $15 billion.

If any U.S. governor was vulnerable this year, it was Gray Davis. Newspaper editorial writers and reporters, even liberals, hoped for a competitive election. They were troubled that Davis seemed to devote an extraordinary amount of time not to governance, but to personally raising campaign dollars. He routinely and personally twisted the arms of individuals and companies with business before him and his administration. All too often, newspapers reported circumstantial evidence documenting a link between large amounts of money and sensitive public policy decisions.

Surveys and focus groups concluded that many Californians well beyond the Republican base opposed reelection for Davis. These voters simply wanted a viable alternative.

Many conservatives had very high hopes for Bill Simon, the Republican candidate against Davis. In some ways, Simon was what Dan Lungren (who lost to Davis in 1998) was not. Lungren was a law-and-order crime fighter who seemed, at times, rigid and stern. He was a tough guy. But Lungren was running against a Democrat, Gray Davis, who strongly supported capital punishment and was endorsed by many law enforcement groups. Still, Lungren had emphasized the crime issue, not education or the economy. Finally, Lungren had been in politics most of his life, so it was difficult for him to be an outsider against a fellow politician, Gray Davis.

While Simon often lapsed into jargon about infrastructure, he seemed at least open to discussing education and the economy. He was optimistic and upbeat, pleasant and affable, smiling and cheerful. Simon appeared to be a people-candidate who could connect emotionally with voters. Moreover, he was a new face, a citizen who wanted to serve.

Simon Beats Riordan

Businessman Simon had run in the Republican primary against former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan and Secretary of State Bill Jones. On March 5th, Simon won an upset 18-point victory against Riordan, who had started the race 42 points ahead. Simon drew national attention with this incredible 60-point shift, much of it within the last month of the primary.

Initially, Riordan had been considered the near-certain primary victor. He had successfully governed the nation’s second largest city. But his well-funded, but incompetent, primary campaign methodically alienated the Republican electorate. Riordan himself offended Republicans with an in-your-face confrontation style. He seemed to rebuke Republicans. Indeed, at the Republican state convention weeks before the primary election, he publicly insulted the popular former Republican governor, George Deukmejian, who was supporting Jones.

When Simon defeated Riordan, conservatives nationally celebrated Simon’s dramatic come-from-behind victory. They compared his Republican primary victory over Riordan to Ronald Reagan’s 1966 Republican primary victory over San Francisco Mayor George Christopher. But there were differences. Unlike Riordan, Christopher did not self-destruct. And Reagan was well known before the campaign. Reagan, the Great Communicator who delivered "The Speech" for Barry Goldwater in 1964, was drafted into running for the ’66 race. But Simon himself was the main impetus for his candidacy.

After Simon’s defeat in the November 5 general election, Garry South, chief political adviser to Gray Davis, told a symposium that Jones actually would have been Davis’ toughest opponent. I should note that Jones had a plausibly reformist record as California’s secretary of state. Thus, he was the perfect foil for taking on the ethically challenged governor. Jones was sufficiently conservative to hold the Republican base, but he conceivably could have appealed to independent voters. But Jones had alienated many Republicans in 2000 by defecting from George W. Bush to John McCain, acting precipitously after Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain.

But the conventional wisdom was that Davis feared Riordan the most in the general election. Back then, Davis probably did. On paper, Riordan was the strongest opponent. Republican Riordan had been elected in highly Democratic Los Angeles, although on a nonpartisan ballot. He had been its high -profile mayor for eight years. But the devil was in the details. Although a Republican, Riordan seemed strangely unwilling to emphasize his conservative positions. His record in Los Angeles was fiscally responsible. Moreover, he had challenged the teacher unions for educational reform. And he led the effort to replace bilingual education with teaching English. However, in this primary campaign, he seemed to crusade for abortion.

Clinton Turned on Riordan

But, more generally, Riordan did not want to take direction, and he had surrounded himself with sycophants. Months before his campaign unraveled, I told national Republican leaders that the unthinkable could occur—Riordan could actually lose the primary. They were understandably skeptical. The reality is that even if Riordan won the primary, I knew that even with his vast potential, he could be a wild card for the general election. Speculation that Riordan would have defeated Davis fails to deal with the question of whether, at this juncture in his life, he would have proven manageable.

Democrat Davis spent $7 million for anti-Riordan hit ads in the Republican primary. We now know that the inspiration for this Davis strategy was former President Bill Clinton, a Davis confidante. Ironically, Republican Riordan had leaned toward Democrat Clinton in his 1996 reelection campaign against Bob Dole. Indeed, a Washington Times editorial this year suggested the following scenario occurred. New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani asked Riordan for help in his U.S. Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton. (Giuliani later dropped out due to prostate cancer.) Riordan supposedly declined, pleading his closeness to the Clintons. This may well be one reason Guiliani later campaigned so vigorously for Simon against Riordan.

Clinton had urged Democrat Davis to intervene in the Republican primary with the ads to wound Riordan, not necessarily kill his candidacy. These ads exploited the already weakened Riordan, whose abysmal campaign had left him vulnerable. Thus, the hit ads had the unintended effect of creating the perfect storm for Simon. Simon beat Riordan.

The prospects for Simon’s victory were apparent for weeks before the March 5 primary. Yet, for the general election, the Simon campaign was unprepared to hit the ground running. Simon’s campaign chairman later told reporters the campaign lacked a "contingency plan for winning." Why? When in 2001 it appeared Riordan was likely to run, Simon, ostensibly tentatively running for governor, considered other offices. But as the disarray of Riordan’s governor campaign became rampant, Simon was encouraged to stay in that race. At worst, Simon probably thought he would run credibly but lose in the primary, then endorse and campaign for Riordan in the general, and perhaps run against Barbara Boxer for the U.S. Senate in 2004. At that stage, defeating Riordan was not in Simon’s cards, although Simon’s campaign thought lightning could strike.

Simon had worked hard campaigning throughout California in the year before the primary election. He was establishing a base for a future political run, while he remained seduced into believing (a) initially, that Riordan would not declare his candidacy for governor (Riordan flirted for awhile, and passed up a chance to get Simon out of the race), and then, (b) later, that Riordan might falter. Simon was sufficiently wealthy that he could fund a sprint across the finish line. But the question was whether he would ever get within sight of it.

The consensus seems to be that three factors (only one predictable) caused Simon to defeat Riordan. The unforeseen terrible tragedy of September 11 made Rudy Giuliani’s endorsement of Simon the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. And Gray Davis destroyed Riordan with his ad campaign using conservative issues to impeach Riordan’s credentials as a Republican.

Before the Davis ads, and as I had predicted, Riordan himself began to self-destruct. Riordan relied for strategy in the Republican primary on a kitchen cabinet of Democrats. Riordan designated a former ad producer for Pete Wilson, Don Sipple, to be the strategist responsible for all key decisions.

Simon Peaked With Primary Win

While Simon’s defeat of Riordan made all the pundits look foolish, Simon’s spectacular victory made Simon an instant national folk hero to conservatives. After all, "Billy" Simon was the son of William Simon, who had served as President Nixon’s Secretary of the Treasury. The elder Simon, who died in 2000, was a staunch conservative who wrote A Time for Choosing, and who served on the board of the Heritage Foundation, the influential conservative think tank. In fact, following in his father’s footsteps, son Bill also joined the Heritage board.

Candidate Simon shared his father’s interest in how values and religion could positively affect society. Both were committed to help the less fortunate. Most impressively, the Simon family championed not only raising and giving dollars to the needy, but hands-on involvement to assure that the dollars were well spent. Candidate Simon had a story to tell. Some thought he could be the compassionate conservative to restore Republicans to power in California.

Well before Simon’s primary win, I compared him to Clark Kent, with the potential to morph into Superman. When Simon did win the primary, conservatives around the country were ready to rally behind him. But the candidate failed to seize the momentum to quickly raise big dollars from the nation’s wealthiest conservatives. Nor did he move immediately to launch a no-brainer massive direct-mail campaign that could have raised additional millions from small donors. Instead, Simon seemed to buy into the insider preoccupation with the Davis campaign treasury—perhaps $30 million cash on hand.

In reality, Simon needed to campaign in the old fashioned way. When you have fewer dollars for advertising, you combine quality research with creative theatrics, and you travel the state and generate strong stories with visual impact. You define the campaign using free or earned media. Further, the campaign could have set the agenda with a stop-gap radio campaign built around all-news formats and talk shows.

Most of all, the candidate and his campaign seemed to bask in the afterglow of their primary victory. With endless backslapping, they believed their own clips. They thought they had won the primary, not that Riordan had lost. Simon said voters had bought into his ideas. But Simon’s signature primary campaign ad to cut the state capital gains tax emphasized a non-issue, especially while people were losing their shirts in the stock market.

Simon had almost a free ride in the primary. He was not tested under fire, because he was not taken seriously until near the end. Simon’s campaign operatives would have you believe they carefully flew under the radar screen. Whether you believe that mythology or not, Simon emerged from the primary unprepared for the general. For example, soon he was in the position of holding a summit on agricultural issues and not knowing the state budget for agriculture.

On primary election night, Simon needed to put Davis on the defensive and build a bridge to Riordan. Quite simply, Simon needed to look a gift horse in the mouth (the Davis anti-Riordan ads) and challenge Davis on his brutal campaign of character assassination against Riordan. He needed to say, "Mr. Davis, you are a failed governor who cannot defend your record. So, you threw mud at Riordan, you will throw mud at me. I will not stand for it. We will discuss your record."

Press Open to Simon Candidacy

There were many early indications of an unprepared campaign. For example, in a news conference following his primary win, Simon challenged Davis to reveal his fundraising schedule. But in response to a predictable softball press question, Simon said he would not reveal his own fundraising schedule. Of course, the news conference fizzled.

California reporters had been down on Davis and open to a credible challenger. But Simon’s campaign failed to capitalize on these feelings. Simon’s many "consultants, strategists, and senior advisers" spoke (or misspoke) for the candidate. They undercut each other and the candidate. They regularly provided incorrect information about Simon and his campaign, especially its fundraising, polls, and ad buys. According to former Simon communications director James Fisfis, when the campaign differed with Simon on what he should say, staffers provided their preferred text to the press. The campaign’s credibility with the press went down the drain early.

Besides, the campaign failed to generate a solid schedule of its own appealing news stories. The campaign as a whole did not service the press corps adequately. Even reporters sympathetic to Simon complained to me that they could get more timely and correct information about Simon himself and his campaign from the Davis campaign! Many reporters soon saw the makeshift campaign as one of smoke and mirrors.

Nonetheless, President George W. Bush quickly agreed to campaign and raise money for Simon. Clearly, the White House felt that Simon could defeat Davis. After all, few incumbents with Davis’s low job-disapproval numbers can be reelected. In time, President Bush campaigned more for Bill Simon than for any gubernatorial candidate, except for his brother (Florida Gov. Jeb Bush).

Despite the early commitment from the White House, the Simon campaign never reciprocated with a winning strategy. Almost from the beginning, the Simon campaign was split between two factions on how to attack Davis. One faction emphasized the Davis failures in education and energy, the other emphasized ethics and corruption. Last week in an election post-mortem column in the Sacramento Bee, former communications director Fisfis faulted Simon’s campaign for attacking Davis as corrupt. This former Simon adviser said Simon’s internal polling and focus groups showed that Davis’s support would shrink drastically when voters were exposed to the Davis record on education and energy.

There was merit to what both sets of Simon’s advisers said. Regardless, Simon never defined this campaign, Davis did. Davis political adviser Garry South, no longer flattering to his boss, now has termed the Davis-Simon contest "damaged goods versus defective product." Near the end, the Davis campaign cleverly switched to all positive ads, but then did an about-face, with negative ads again on Simon. Why? Apparently, Gray Davis prevailed over South, and their relationship is now strained. Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton wrote on November 14 that normally hyper-negative campaigner South now faults his boss Davis as, in Skelton’s words, "the No. 1 aggression-hawk." South said, "You have to give your people a reason to get off their butts on election day." The bottom line: Skelton says the Davis tactics may have driven some Democrats away from their party permanently, and these Democrats may vote in 2004—for George W. Bush.

The reality is that voters already disliked Davis. They needed to understand that Davis fumbled energy so badly that he nearly bankrupted the state. Simon never simply and clearly painted Davis into a corner. In an early and ineffective television spot, Simon poked fun at the Davis fundraising. Initially, Simon failed to link the governor’s bad public policy with campaign dollars. Later, he did so implausibly with hyperbole. Simon may be a former prosecutor, but he failed personally to make an open-and-shut case against Davis. He never closed the loop on policy. Quite simply, Simon needed to define Davis as the worst governor in California history.

Some, even outside California, had been quick to criticize Simon’s first campaign consultant. But was the criticism fair? When Simon postponed the inevitable and refused to release his income tax returns, the campaign was mired for weeks in needless controversy. Whose fault was that? The "novice" candidate had already been running for office for more than a year.

Simon Campaign Infighting

Simon’s campaign had many competent people, but the chemistry was all wrong. There was responsibility without accountability. The buck stops with Bill Simon, and he is realistic enough to know that. Actually, Simon’s first campaign consultant, Sal Russo, and his campaign chairman, John Herrington, were at odds. In a normal campaign, the consultant selects the day-to-day campaign manager. But Simon and his campaign chairman hired and fired numerous managers and communications directors. At one point, Simon had two competing sets of proposed television commercials. By September Simon had two "chief strategists"—Sal Russo and Ed Rollins.

This summer, Simon directly or indirectly had hired the top consultants and senior staff from the losing Jones campaign—among others, strategist Ed Rollins, media ad creator Larry McCarthy, campaign manager Rob Lapsley, and communications adviser Sean Walsh. Reporters soon joked that Simon had the Jones campaign, without Jones.

Campaign infighting had led the Simon campaign to unravel. The turnover caused great instability during the summer. Halfway between the March 5 primary and November 5 general, Simon had fired nearly 40% of his campaign staff. Presumably, that saved money, but it reinforced the campaign’s loser image. The cutbacks probably turned off more donor money than they saved.

In retrospect, the campaign defied targeted criticism. Who’s on first? No one person was responsible for the strategy. (Simon staffer member Craig Turk, quoted last week in a Sacramento Bee article by Gary Delsohnn, summed it up: "You didn’t have a single person who was ultimately accountable, and who could stand up and say, ‘This is the way we’re going, period.’")

Simon’s own top advisers often criticized the campaign to the press. They did this off the record, initially, but at the Republican State Convention in September, two top Simon advisers—Sal Russo and Rob Lapsley—were openly at odds at their own campaign news conference.

And by October, Simon’s latest "senior" and "chief" political consultant, Ed Rollins, who had previously criticized Simon’s campaign publicly in a radio appearance, was now telling the press he had to "pump" Simon to keep him from thinking he would lose.

When it came to mounting a campaign, Simon had made Riordan’s crucial mistake. You cannot attack Davis for mismanagement of the state, when your own campaign appears to be a sham. That’s because voters, at least implicitly, judge a book by its cover. If your campaign seems a mess, then perhaps you cannot lead the state.

When the Los Angeles Times unenthusiastically endorsed Davis, it described the incumbent as "aloof. . . robotic. . . largely humorless" and criticized the Davis fundraisings scandals as "unseemly." But the same editorial described Simon’s campaign as "one amateurish gaffe and disaster after another," and concluded, "Simon’s constant campaign stumbles. . . raise questions about the Republican candidate’s ability to organize and run a complex state administration."

Most of the Simon campaign’s small mistakes were inside-baseball errors that did not directly affect voter opinion. But, indirectly, the campaign’s screw-ups mattered. Both would-be donors and reporters soon developed a low opinion of the campaign.

Sure, polls showed Simon as viable during the summer. Yet, major donors were nonetheless turned off by newspaper coverage of the campaign, while reporters spun the consequently under-funded campaign increasingly negatively. Much has been said about money. But Simon’s campaign spent $30 million for a campaign that Simon’s consultant last week lamented as "somewhat of a shell of a campaign." The truth is that, given Davis’s rampant unpopularity, Simon had enough money, but, as Sacramento Bee reporter Amy Chance observed, "It didn’t help that Simon falsely accused Davis of committing a crime in the election’s only televised debate."

Photo-Gate was the campaign’s most dramatic low point. Simon, who had charged during the debate that Davis had accepted money in a government office, afterwards produced a photograph supposedly showing this event, which would have been against the law. But the photograph was taken in a private home. Former federal prosecutor Simon and his campaign of highly experienced "chief" strategists and "senior" consultants had made no effort to verify the facts.

Indeed, Simon later told reporters it was not his job or his campaign’s job to verify the charge before making it. Times political columnist George Skelton called it "another self-inflicted wound by Simon." Davis was so target-rich with his well-documented failings, and therefore so easy to attack effortlessly, that political analysts were shocked that the Simon campaign would attack Davis without proof.

Davis would use this episode effectively to inoculate himself against later Simon attacks.

Simon’s campaign was full of many false starts that suggested the lack of a coherent campaign plan. Money may explain the absence of a long-running television buy. It could not explain creating television spots that barely aired or never aired.

By the end, the quality of Simon’s ads had improved. But problems remained in the ads featuring Simon personally. Earlier, he had seemed improperly or under-directed. Now he seemed improperly or over-directed. He was not strong, yet he still appeared to oversell. Originally, he had lost his political virginity. Now, he lost any semblance of authenticity.

At no time did Simon’s advertising ever use the third party credibility of real voters. The campaign should have addressed the "lesser of two evils" mindset of voters. "Real people" needed to say how they came to choose Simon over Davis. Instead, in the final week, Simon was reduced to saying on camera, "Under Gray Davis, traffic is hopeless."

On election night, Davis attributed his victory to his pro-choice position on abortion. The fact is that abortion played almost no role in this campaign. Simon said that he is pro-life, but said his wife is pro-choice. Simon said he would not work to overturn existing state legislation providing government aid for abortions.

But regardless of what Simon did or did not say on abortion, or whether anyone cared, it appears that voters now realize whether or not Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land that has little to do with the election of the governor of California. Indeed, if Davis really had made abortion an issue, there might have been a voter backlash against him. Voters would have concluded properly that Davis was trying to deflect attention from his miserable record. Since the Davis campaign emphasizes poll and focus groups, we can conclude that they realized from their research the downside risk of making abortion an issue. Davis rarely spoke about the issue, and it was hardly mentioned in his advertising.

This was a campaign where the only issue was the candidates themselves. The Times exit polls found that about 60% of the voters had a negative view of both candidates.

Davis Win or Simon Loss?

During the summer and early fall, conservative Republicans publicly criticized Simon’s campaign. The Washington Times presumably hoped its critical editorial would galvanize the Simon campaign. Consider Lyn Nofziger, the respected icon who advised Ronald Reagan for years and whom the Simon campaign briefly claimed as a "senior adviser." When Simon appeared to flip-flop on whether or not he supported a Gay Pride Parade, the frustrated Nofziger reacted emotionally, saying Simon was "too dumb" to win.

An exasperated Rep. Tom Davis (no relation to Gray Davis), National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, called Simon’s campaign "the single worst-run race in the country." Even conservative Bob Bartley of the Wall Street Journal called Simon "inept but principled." No doubt many of these critics vented because they felt Davis was ripe for defeat.

On the eve of election, the Republican tilting Los Angeles Daily News, editorialized: "Davis has offered a horrific combination of incompetence and sleaze. . . that has generated a never-ending series of fund-raising scandal and payoffs. If ethics and competence were Davis weak points, they hardly turned out to be Simon’s strong suits. . . . In good conscience, we cannot recommend either [Davis or Simon]."

Still we must ask, was the glass for Republicans in this race half empty or half full?

Half empty: Gray Davis was and is one of the most unpopular governors in the nation. His mismanagement of the state is legendary. Most Californians thought the state has been moving in the wrong direction under Davis, they thought he was doing a poor job, and they had/have an unfavorable, even unforgiving, view of him. But he still won.

Half full: Gray Davis spent $65 million and polled 3 points above Democrat registration. That’s more than $20 million a point. Supposedly, Davis was ahead of novice candidate Bill Simon by 14 points. But Davis won by only 5. The incumbent governor received less than a majority of the vote—48% in fact—and Simon carried 40 of California’s 58 counties.

In an election post-mortem, yet another Simon "strategist"—Jeff Flint—blamed Simon’s loss on two unforeseen events. First, the Internal Revenue Service named taxpayers, including Simon, who were under investigation for investing in a particular kind of tax shelter. This IRS disclosure reprised talk of Simon’s failure to disclose his tax returns. (The IRS statement unfairly implicating Simon was without precedent.) Second, a runaway jury unanimously ruled that the Simon family firm had defrauded a former drug dealer. (This verdict was overturned just six weeks later.)

That post-mortem begs the question. What kind of campaign would (a) stubbornly refuse to release the candidate’s tax returns, and (b) be caught off-guard by litigation? The reality is all was not well in this campaign before the IRS problem or the jury verdict. Based on its overall performance, this campaign would have found other ways to lose the election.

Polls and Pols

Republican activists had been encouraged by late tracking polls that reportedly showed Simon running nearly even with Davis. Typically, these leaked polls were conducted either directly for the Simon campaign, or indirectly by Republican pollsters for other clients. The last Simon internal poll released by the campaign showed Simon ahead by 3 points.

For some Republicans, there was a feeling of déjà vu. When Lungren had run four years earlier, major contributors were told repeatedly that he was running nearly even. In the end, Davis beat Lungren by an awesome landslide, nearly 20 points. In contrast, the Davis polling in 1998 always showed him ahead of Lungren by substantial margins that approached the actual election results.

This time, the Davis polls again showed Davis comfortably ahead, again by double digits. In addition, tracking polls by Democrat Mark Mellman for the California Teachers Association typically showed a 10-to-12 point lead. Public polls by Field, the Los Angeles Times, and the Public Policy Institute of California generally showed consistent, but lesser, leads for Davis. In all cases, we saw great stability.

The reality is that if Simon had been anywhere close to Davis during the last couple of weeks, he would have won this election.

While turnout is always an explanation for different polling results, the public polls this year focused on likely voters. But none of these public polls could possibly have foreseen the record-low turnout of California voters. Secretary of State Bill Jones, who worked with the 58 county registrars, officially forecast 58%, about the same as the record-low four years ago. The Field survey, based on its 42 years of polling, and its interviews with voters this year, forecast a new record low of 55%. The actual turnout, when we add late absentee ballots, will be about 49%. That percentage compares with a post-war average of 70%.

How low was this year’s turnout? Four years ago, Gray Davis won by 19 points over Dan Lungren. In that election, Lungren polled 3,218,030 votes. Yet, Lungren’s vote surpassed the 3,143,924 votes (without late absentees) Davis polled this time.

The ability to forecast election results for a record-low turnout level is nearly impossible. One finds a level of volatility that practically defies prediction. In other words, you literally have to throw the dice. Los Angeles Times exit polls suggest only a 6-point gap in voting between Democrats and Republicans, compared to a 10-point gap in actual registration.

But party registration may tell only part of the story. Those who turned out may have been relatively more white, older, and more conservative than registered voters, as a whole. The Times exit polls claimed that the Latino share of the vote declined from 13% in 1998 to 10% this time, and the black share from 13% to 4%. While these numbers are not entirely plausible, they suggest a distinct advantage for Simon that even the optimistic Republican tracking polls could not capture by design. These Republican tracking polls found it easier and cheaper to interview whites. It is not that they shrewdly forecast the turnout this time. (Even a broken clock is right twice a day.)

Further, if you believe the Times exit polls, Simon ran about even with Davis among independent voters, and that accounted for the relatively closer-than-expected election margin of 5 points. Still, even if you accept the Times numbers on independents, we cannot say for certain that independents moved toward Simon, but perhaps that a skewed group of independents opted to vote on election day.

The bottom line is that it’s hard to imagine a more auspicious scenario for Simon. This one was, quite literally, off the chart (as you can see below). This turnout in California was the 100-year flood for Democrats. When you combine the national Republican surge with the odd turnout in California, you have the best possible world for Bill Simon. He received a bump of at least 5 points.

Whatever the California Republican party did this year, it did something right. Republican turnout, at least relative to Democrats, was impressive.

But the fact remains that even if President Bush had returned to California again, Simon would not have won. Indeed, in this state, a late Bush visit actually might have been polarizing, driving more Democrats, especially younger and nonwhite Democrats, out to vote. Davis still would have been reelected, and not necessarily by a lesser margin. In the process, we might have lost a U.S. Senate seat elsewhere, because the President was in California instead.

Yet, California remains a state full of future surprises. Gray Davis is not in a strong position, and the state is in for a rough couple of years. Davis is surrounded by Democrats who want his job: Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, and Treasurer Phil Angelides. In 2004, always vulnerable U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer will again have to face the voters.

Against this backdrop, California could be in play for President Bush’s reelection.

Perhaps some of Simon’s harshest critics should take a step back. It’s not easy to be a candidate for public office nowadays. And when you take on Gray Davis, you’re open to the worst kind of mudslinging. At least Simon was willing to step up to the plate. Indeed, he even loaned his campaign $10 million that he will never see again.

One Simon supporter, in a letter to the editor, asked, "How rare is it for someone of wealth, in addition to giving millions of dollars, to devote hundreds of hours teaching or playing basketball with poor teenagers?"

The tragedy here is not that Bill Simon lost, but that he could have won.

What a lost opportunity for all of us.

 

Election Year for Governor (Calif.)

Percentage Turnout of Registered Voters

1950

73.30%

1954

69.70%

1958

79.50%

1962

78.70%

1966

79.20%

1970

76.20%

1974

64.10%

1978

70.40%

1982

69.80%

1986

59.40%

1990

58.60%

1994

60.40%

1998

57.60%

2002

49% est




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