State's Political Atmosphere Shapes Special Election Battle

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, May 14, 2009

Californians will go to the polls Tuesday for another election.  They’ll decide the fate of six measures placed on the ballot by lawmakers as part of February’s budget compromise.  Propositions 1A through 1F are intended to help shore up the state’s financial crisis.  But voters are upset with Sacramento these days, so the campaign pushing the measures is finding most of them to be a tough sell.  Meanwhile, the opposition campaign is riding the wave of voter anger.

Let’s start with a guessing game.  You’re about to hear quotes urging yes votes from Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a TV ad, and Democratic State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg.  Can you spot the theme? 
Schwarzenegger: “The result of the propositions failing on May 19th will mean $6 billion in additional severe cuts.”
TV Ad: “It could get even worse.  We could lose another 43,000 teachers, see class sizes increase and more schools close.”
Steinberg: “You’re then talking about real impacts on the programs, the investments and the people that matter.” 
Here’s the answer from Sacramento State Communications Professor Barbara O’Connor: 
O’Connor: “It won’t really hurt the politicians if you vote no, it will hurt you – from the teacher, from the fire fighter.” 
O’Connor calls this message “fear-appeal.”  And the campaign and the politicians who support the measures are clearly on the same page.  On Thursday, the governor is releasing two new budget proposals: one if the measures pass, one if they don’t.  The campaign against Prop 1A, naturally, is crying foul.  Here’s spokesman Mike Roth: 
Roth: “Releasing these numbers one week before the election is an obvious attempt to scare voters into voting for these failing measures.  And this is another in a series of tactics that the governor’s using to mislead the voters.” 
But backers say that’s the reality of the budget crisis.  And besides, says Barbara O’Connor … 
O’Connor: “I think that’s their only choice.” 
Why?  Look at the polls, she says.  Voters aren’t sold on five of the six measures. 
O’Connor: “I don’t think they have a magnitude check of what these cuts will look like if propositions don’t pass, and that’s the need for the fear-appeal.” 
In fact, the Yes campaign started off with a reform message – that is, pass these measures to clean up Sacramento’s budget mess.  But so far, voters aren’t buying.  Adam Mendelsohn is a top political advisor to Governor Schwarzenegger and one of the brains behind the Yes on 1A-through-1F campaign. 
Mendelsohn: “It’s a matter of an electorate who’s very frustrated and very angry and what we have seen is that there’s just a lot of confusion about what these initiatives mean.” 
And they’re reacting the opposite way from what Mendelsohn would like. 
Mendelsohn: “What you’re seeing in a lot of the research is people feel like if they vote no, somehow that’s going to send a message to Sacramento and tell the politicians that they don’t like them.” 
Driving that point home is Prop 1F, which polls suggest will pass by a wide margin.  It would prevent lawmakers from getting a pay hike when the state runs a deficit. The other five measures aren’t even close. Mendelsohn says the campaign’s biggest challenge is turning that frustration with Sacramento around – in just nine weeks.  Similar campaigns usually last at least a year. 
Mendelsohn: “There’s no doubt if you had time to go sit down and walk every voting person in California through the details of these initiatives, I have no doubt we would win this with 80 percent.” 
Well, maybe not 80 percent, says O’Connor, but certainly better than where the measures stand now.  Polls show support for Props 1A through 1E down in the 30s or 40s.  O’Connor says the Yes campaign’s short TV ads don’t have nearly enough details to get their message across. 
O’Connor: “These are complicated arguments, they’re complicated propositions, and you have to have a message that deals with two or three major themes.  And fear-appeals in a 30-second ad just don’t do it with a group of angry voters.” 
That’s why Mike Roth and the No on 1A campaign feel pretty good about themselves right now – even though they’re being vastly outspent.  They’ve got a TV ad running urging voters to look at the measure’s “fine print” – and they’re going around the state talking to voters.  Besides, Roth’s team has another dynamic in its favor: since 1970, Californians have opposed more ballot measures than they’ve approved. 
Roth: “We on the No side really don’t have to do much.  We’re very fortunate in this campaign, that the more the proponents of these measures put these misleading ads on TV, I think the voters are turning off.” 
Still, observers say this is an election like no other: a budget crisis, a rushed campaign and an extremely unpredictable turnout – far too many question marks for either side to take the voters for granted.