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Is a Debacle Looming for California Democrats?
August 16, 2003
By James Paterson, Ph.D

With the Reagan victory of 1966, California became a Republican-dominated state. Since the early 1980s, however, it has grown heavily Democratic - a shift that is markedly at odds with the strong conservative trend that has captured national politics since 1984. According to Democratic party strategist Bill Carrick, the Democratic advantage in California is anywhere between four and ten percentage points. But as one of the states with the highest number of electoral votes, California is too important for the Republicans to ignore. It is certainly central to any vision of a Republican lock on the White House for the next generation. However, the only way that the Republican minority can gain a hold of the state is by means of the recall taking place on October 7. The recall's rules make it possible for a minority candidate to win the governor's office, so long as s/he gains more votes than any other single candidate.

Democrats are right to oppose the recall on principle. After all, Davis was only re-elected last November and the election will cost the state between $53 million and $66 million, compounding its current financial problems. But it is less the recall itself than the rules under which it is being conducted that poses a serious threat to the future of democracy in America. So long as there is a single high profile Republican candidate, the conservative side of politics will remain relatively united; the chances of a Republican contender defeating all rivals increased massively with Hollywood legend Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to run. It is already clear that, with Schwarzenegger in the race, the stakes have risen dramatically. The Austrian-born actor may be a poor candidate, as most commentators are well aware, but so was George W. Bush, and he remains firmly ensconced in the White House in the midst of the worst performing administration in living memory.

What will matter on October 7 is less Schwarzenegger's political abilities (or lack thereof) than the fact that alternative Republican candidates are being elbowed out of his way. Darrell Issa has already backed down, albeit with tears in his eyes, while Peter Ueberroth now feels obliged to run as an independent. Even though he is not the only Republican on the ballot, Schwarzenegger's name and popularity look like attracting the support of at least a quarter of the California electorate.

But while the right can be expected to stand squarely behind Schwarzenegger, the recall will fracture the left badly. Already, more than 190 candidates are on the ballot. What matters is less the fact that so many candidates are running than that there is no single force on the anti-conservative side who is likely to attract as many votes as the Republican candidate. Democratic strategy is badly flawed by the party's decision to back incumbent governor Gray Davis to the hilt, a product of its illusion that the recall itself can be defeated.

But while the likelihood is that Davis will be recalled, the party has done nothing to present a credible Democratic alternative to Schwarzenegger's candidacy. Only Dianne Feinstein could win the state for the Democrats. According to an August 8 Times/CNN poll, if Feinstein ran, 22 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for her, compared to 20 percent for Schwarzenegger. Yet Feinstein is already marching in step behind the party's disastrous attempt to salvage Davis's position and has declined to run.

But if, as seems inevitable, the Democratic vote is split between Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, who the poll suggests would get only 15% of the votes, and other Democratic contenders - with considerable hemorrhaging of the Democratic vote to Peter Miguel Camejo of the Greens and independent Arianna Huffington - then a situation is likely to unfold in which no single Democratic candidate wins more votes than Schwarzenegger. This will bring about an outrageous result: even if the combined Democratic/progressive/Green vote amounts to 75% of the total vote, the governorship would be ceded to a candidate with just 25% of the vote. Few people can be under any illusions as to the reasons why the GOP campaigned for the recall: its rules are a virtual incitement to gain power by the classic tactics of 'divide and rule.'

If Bustamante is the best the Democrats can offer, they had better rally behind him fast. The alternative is a debacle of the sort that, by fracturing the leftwing vote, handed conservative candidate Jacques Chirac the French presidency in 2001. Democrats have been painfully slow to develop a realistic recall strategy because they seem to believe that salvaging Davis's governorship is morally the right thing to do. Perhaps it is: but in the present circumstances Democrats cannot afford to go down in a blaze of glory doing the right thing. Too much is at stake.

California has 54 electoral votes, a fifth of the 270 needed to win the presidency. George Bush's chances of winning re-election in 2004 depend heavily upon the opportunity to implement electoral changes in California of the kind that Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris used to take Florida for the Republicans in the 2000 presidential election. Nothing less than the 'Floridation' of California in time for the 2004 election is at issue in the recall vote. If Democrats let the Republicans take California this year, they can say sweet bye bye to their chances of taking back the White House for a decade or more. October 7 may be the Democrats' last stand in California.

Assuming a Schwarzenegger victory, the only possible Democratic insurance policy against the state's Floridation is, quite a simply, another recall. If Governor Schwarzenegger wins with even 30% of the vote, that is still significantly less than the proportion who, according to the Times/CNN poll, would prefer to keep Davis in office (35%). If Schwarzenegger is, in effect, less popular than the governor he ousted, then the Democrats would have every right to try to remove him. Unless he was able to win more than 50% of the recall vote, his governorship would - under under present rules - be terminated. Perhaps the Democratic party will get it together to field a credible candidate for governor on the second attempt.

But this is an optmistic scenario. What's more likely is, that after the recall, the Republicans will change the rules of the game to prevent further recalls. In the weeks after Governor Schwarzenegger takes office, be prepared for announcements to the effect that the recall has been an 'unedifying' and 'divisive' episode in California politics, and that the relevant law will have to be amended lest the state degenerates into a never-ending series of 'partisan' debacles that only distract attention from the state's fiscal crisis.

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