The Blog

What's the Best That Could Happen?

Bill Simon is down double-digits to California Gov. Gray Davis. But if the stars line up just right--and it rains in L.A.--you never know . . .

11:00 PM, Oct 31, 2002 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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POLLS RELEASED LAST WEEK have Gov. Gray Davis beating the pants off Bill Simon with a double-digit lead in the race for the California governorship. But, believe it or not, a select few still believe Simon has a chance. What are they thinking?

(1) Davis's lead isn't as strong as it looks. At this point in the race incumbent Davis should be holding at least a majority of likely voters. But according to the Los Angeles Times, Davis is polling at 45 percent of likely voters against Simon's 36 percent, and the Public Policy Institute of California says the figures are closer to 41 percent versus 31 percent. After pouring about $50 million into his campaign, mostly on anti-Simon ads, Davis has been unable to consistently gain even half of likely voters in polls, which signals that something odd is going on. And that something might turn out to be in Simon's favor.

(2) Californians hate Davis. "It's like watching two guys trying to climb out of a steel cage in one of those caged Texas death matches. No matter how much he beats up Simon, Davis can't get out of the cage," says Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Stanford-based Hoover Institution. And the reason Davis can't break out of the cage is his performance as governor. Whalen calls the bad taste Davis's governorship has left in the mouths of California voters "the X-factor in this election."

Davis squandered an $8 billion surplus and has left the state with a $23.6 billion budget shortfall. He has admitted that this year's budget, submitted 67 days late, is "not a perfect document." He also brought California the rolling blackouts during the summer of 2000 and a 36 percent increase in state spending over the last three years. So it's not surprising that 52 percent of likely voters think that things are on the wrong track in California, and 51 percent disapprove of Davis's performance as governor.

Check out this link for less-than-glowing "endorsements" of Davis by several California papers. With 56 percent of likely voters describing their choice as "the best of a bad lot" and 2 of 5 voters saying that they actually dislike the candidate they support, many people may just stay home. Which brings us to the next item:

(3) Depressed turnout. Democrats have a 10 percent advantage in voter registration in California. So anything that lowers turnout is a boon for Republicans. Whalen cites a number of factors that might affect turnout, including the content of last minute ads run this week by both candidates. "Simon needs to present himself as a viable alternative," he says, and he thinks that "a few well-placed positive ads by either candidate could motivate people to come to the polls for their guy"--even if they wouldn't want to have a beer with him. Of course, a rainy day in L.A. wouldn't hurt Simon either.

(4) The Power of Positive Thinking. Despite the fact that many Republicans, including former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger and House Republican campaign chief Tom Davis, have denounced the Simon campaign as "poorly run" and "a disaster," hope springs eternal. One California Republican says (with optimism so guarded he refused to go on record): "It is still mathematically possible," but acknowledges that "the math involves what turnout is going to be. A 47 percent turnout puts the race in close single digits." Turnout is currently predicted at about 58 percent.

Finally, a spokesman for Simon's campaign says, of course, "I think we're in a very good position to win. The polls are closing and we're in the home stretch and we're very confident."

Simon's chances may be slim, but as a few optimistic Republicans are quick to note, they're not none. And that's something.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.