Hope springs eternal in the hearts not just of people, but political parties, and the hope of both California Democrats and Republicans today is that voters in the other party will desert, or at least not vote.
Almost every election season gives cause for such hopes, which rarely emerge into reality. This year, Republicans fervently hope the fact that Democrat Jerry Brown over the summer ran the state’s equivalent of a Rose Garden campaign for governor will cause many Democrats to leave the party and switch to GOP nominee Meg Whitman.
Democrats, meanwhile, have no expectation that many Republicans will ever vote Democratic. But they always hope a lot of Republicans stay home, dissatisfied with the ideological or moral purity of their party’s candidate.
Even before Whitman’s problems with an illegal immigrant housekeeper arose, those Democratic wishes were fueled this year by the unhappiness of the GOP’s right wing over what conservatives see as Whitman’s waffling over both illegal immigrant and climate change. First she was for suspending the state’s landmark 2006 law aiming to limit greenhouse gas production; now she says she’ll vote against Proposition 23, which would do just that. First she was absolutely for Arizona’s attempt to crack down on illegal immigrants, then her Spanish-language TV ads softened the stance. And then the housekeeper flap arose.
One former leader of the state GOP’s most conservative element, the California Republican Assembly, scoffs at the Democratic hopes. “The CRA is committed to winning this election,” said Stephen Frank, now a campaign strategist and blogger. “We will be very active and we will work to elect Republicans.”
But he adds that he expects a very low November voter turnout. “A large number of both Republicans and Democrats are so upset with the whole political situation they just won’t vote.” Plainly, Frank and other Republicans hope there will be more disaffected Democrats.
“I think progressives are upset with Obama over Guantanamo Bay, over the war in Afghanistan, over a lot of things and they don’t see Jerry Brown as their leader,” Frank said. “He has not spoken up at all.”
One reason for that may be that Brown is up against a free-spending billionaire in Whitman, who set a national record for personal political spending even before the campaign entered its final months.
This also may explain why Brown hasn’t done much to help other Democratic candidates for statewide offices, suggests Bob Mulholland, longtime state Democratic Party operative and now co-head of a new private campaign group called CEO Watch, which regularly takes potshots at ex-CEOs Whitman (eBay) and Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard).
“If I had a billionaire running against me, I’d be focusing on my own race, too,” said Mulholland. “Brown knows and so do the others on the ticket that the better he does, the better they all do.”
Mulholland notes that Democrats have upped their voter registration advantage over Republicans in California from 1.3 million in 2006 to 2.3 million today, much of the increase produced by young voters’ fervor for Barack Obama in 2008.
“Yes, the Republicans will have a higher percentage turnout than we do,” Mulholland said. “Yes, there will always be some Democrats who vote Republican, but that’s nothing new. Still, about 90 percent of Democrats who vote will vote Democratic. That means the Republicans will need an awful lot of independent votes, and they won’t get them.”
Independents swung heavily to Obama in 2008, but they appeared for awhile to lean toward Whitman this year. Mulholland predicts that won’t last as Brown’s campaign ads become ever more frequent and voters focus more on the election.
“People want a president or a governor they know and trust,” he said. “When they look at CEOs like Whitman and Fiorina, they don’t have that feeling.”
The importance of the independent, or decline-to-state, voter became obvious over the summer and early fall, when polls showed support for both Whitman and Brown diminished from what it was during the spring primary election season.
Usually, when voters move into the undecided category after supporting one candidate, it’s a sign they will eventually go over to the other side. But no one quite knows what it means when the movement is occurring in both directions in approximately equal numbers.
In the end, the chief Republican hope is for a very low turnout, since that would reduce the number of independent voters needed to supplement Republicans in order to reach a majority. That may be one reason for the torrent of negative ads Whitman has aimed at Brown.
Democrats, meanwhile, believe they need only an average turnout to win, unless independents go Republican by a margin of nearly 2-1, which has never before happened. “We just have more voters in this state than they do,” says Mulholland, “and that’s why our candidates will win.”
But that advantage might not mean much if a lot of those voters sit on their hands.
Which is why this election, more than any other recent one, may hinge on turnout of Democratic voters. That, and where the many still-undecided independents finally land.