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To Be, or Not To Be

What will be the fate of Schwarzenegger's reform agenda in California's special election?

7:30 AM, Nov 7, 2005 • By BILL WHALEN
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ON THE BIG SCREEN, Arnold Schwarzenegger's closest brush with Shakespeare was playing a gun-toting, not-so-sweet prince in Last Action Hero ("something is rotten in Denmark--and Hamlet is taking out the trash"). But with Californians set to decide his reform agenda in Tuesday' special election, Schwarzenegger will soon learn the answer to another Shakespearean question: Does the fault lie in the state's biggest political star?

Indeed, as California braces for its vote, the stars seemed in alignment. Senator John McCain rushed to the Golden State for a final round of campaigning for Proposition 77, which would strip the state legislature of its redistricting responsibilities. In Hollywood, a bevy of B-listers worked the phone banks to get out the vote against the Governator (among those doing the dialing: Kurtwood Smith from That '70s Show and Lori Alan, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants).

As for Warren Beatty, the notoriously private film star wasn't exactly hiding in a pineapple under the sea.

On Friday, Beatty personally bankrolled two-plus hours of satellite interviews with local television stations. Reporters discovered this accidentally, when Beatty showed up late for his first one-on-one and a sound engineer muttered: "You'd think he'd be on time, he's paying for this himself."

The following day, Beatty and his wife, Annette Bening, took to a bus and stalked Schwarzenegger's caravan across Southern California. Beatty is smart enough to know that such stunts grab headlines. But when the media swooped in he sounded at various times either mired in the past (claiming Arnold was part of a Republican conspiracy to rub out the New Deal) or exaggerative of his own credentials (Beatty says he's a legitimate voice because he's been following politics since 1966).

Not that this got in the way of business as usual in California. Arnold, Warren, and their political road show had to share air time with Charles and Camilla, who were in the Bay Area to tour an organic farm (the royal couple didn't opine on the local election, though one onlooker did hold up a "Charles For Guv" sign). Today campaigning will have to compete with the spectacle of a topless "Breasts Not Bombs" protest scheduled at the State Capitol.

In the end, what will decide Tuesday's outcome won't be celebrities attacking Sacramento. The key is both sides' ability to get out the vote. On Friday, California's secretary of state predicted that turnout will be a relatively high 42 percent of registered voters (a dozen years ago, in California's last initiative-only special election, turnout was 37 percent).

Naturally, both sides spent the weekend spinning the press that their tactics--direct mail, door-to-door precinct walking, automated "robo-calls" to voters--were working. No one can argue that the parties have lacked for persistence. On Sunday afternoon, I stepped out of my house for an hour, coming home to discover three missed robo-calls--from Schwarzenegger ("vote for my agenda"); California Rep. Bill Thomas ("vote for 77") and the state's GOP chairman ("please vote on Tuesday"). Later in the day a McCain call came in also urging to vote for 77 (one of 1.5 million dialed).

Clearly, something unusual is afoot. The secretary of state is guessing that absentee voters will constitute 40 percent of Tuesday's electorate--up from 32 percent in November 2004 (some strategists believe the absentee vote will be even higher--closer to 50 percent of Tuesday's numbers).

This surprising number could reflect the millions spent on fine-tuning the turn-out. The California Republican party, for example, invested in a "micro-targeting" service that pinpoints voters' tastes in television viewing and magazine subscriptions, trying to identify Arnold-friendly voters. Or it could be a reflection of the times: one in every five California voter is now registered as "permanent absentee," meaning they prefer to mail in their choices rather than head to the polls.

The question is: Do those extra absentee ballots belong to Schwarzenegger or the labor unions (who will have spent an estimated $130 million trying to undermine his cause by the times the polls close)? We may not know the answer for several days. As of last Tuesday, only 1 million of the 4.4 million absentee ballots mailed had been counted by local elections officials. Last November, Los Angeles had 15 percent of the vote left uncounted on election night, which could prove to be the difference in a close initiative fight.