by Jill Stewart
American Reporter Correspondent
October 1, 2003
HOW DAVIS LOST CALIFORNIA
SACRAMENTO, Oct. 1, 2003 -- Numbers really do lie, and people using numbers lie even more. That's one of the more profound if overlooked lessons of the movement to recall Gray Davis that is hurtling toward Oct. 7.
The embattled governor keeps recycling the claim that, " I have an obligation to the eight million who went to the polls last November: They asked me to do a job in California."
Wow, 8 million? That's a surprising amount of support for a guy whose vicious campaigning turned off so many voters that droves stayed home, resulting in the worst gubernatorial voter turnout in state history.
Hearing Davis cite those 8 million voters again and again, a lot of intelligent people naturally believed 8 million people voted for Davis. For example, CNN's Wolf Blitzer spoke solemnly about how Davis' 8 million voters might get overturned by a smaller number of pro-recall voters.
But 8 million people did not vote for Davis - not even close. Nearly eight million people went to the polls but most rejected Davis. Davis got a pathetic 3.5 million votes. Nearly as many went to Bill Simon, and the rest were awarded to alternative party hopefuls including Green candidate Peter Camejo.
Davis should abandon this whopper, clearly designed to mislead. Indeed, he got so few votes that he helped inspire the recall. Californians have tried to recall a sitting governor 31 times. All failed miserably because it's nearly impossible to get 12 percent of recent voters to sign any petition - the legal requirement for gubernatorial recall signatures.
Davis drove turnout so low that recallers needed 12 percent of fewer than 8 million voters, not 12 percent of 10 or 12 million voters. After the election, former Jimmy Carter pollster Pat Caddell said on MSNBC "Davis himself has inadvertently put a recall signature-gathering effort within reach for the first time in 90 years."
Now Davis is spinning what happened, coached by none other that Chris Lehane, an East Coast master of media misdirection who helped craft the unsuccessful Al Gore-as-victim strategy in Florida in 2000.
Lehane pigeonholed journalists after the Sacramento debate on Sept. 24, promising them that Arianna Huffington had mortally wounded Arnold Schwarzenegger by making him look disrespectful to women. Lehane's good. A few media sheep bought his prattle and in their news reports outrageously failed to identify Lehane as directly involved in the Davis camp.
In these final days, Davis' could go pure Lehane and it could get ugly. So far, Davis' anti-recall tv ads leave out all mention of our icky governor. That's because focus groups show Davis is so disliked that each time they show his face or flash his name, he loses votes.
The campaign is casting the Unmentionable One as a victim of an unfair movement who is struggling to become a changed man.
It didn't work for OJ.
Last month's poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed an 11-point lead for recall. Davis needed to launch a vicious ad and media buzz campaign against Arnold Schwarzenegger to overcome that. That was especially true once Schwarzenegger's debate performance was so widely watched and so well received by the public.
Which brings us to the numbers games being played by pollsters.
The Los Angeles Times has been hammered by polling experts and journalists such as Mickey Kaus at www.Slate.com for its bizarre poll in early September showing the recall to be a virtual tie. The finding defied every other major poll. To justify it, the Times published a story that took swipes at the respected Field Poll, the most recent of which had shown the recall ahead by double digits.
Perturbed, the Field Poll people got their hands on the Times' methodology for drawing its polling sample. (The Times should make this information public promptly, as many polls do, especially since its poll methods are now under a dark cloud.)
Field Poll experts discovered that the Times Poll in September went well beyond random sampling, adding in so many blacks and Asians that together they represented about 18 percent of those polled - nearly twice the number who voted for governor last November.
I've dissected Times polls for years. They usually cannot find enough Asians to break out separately. It's safe to assume most of these voters were actually black.
How did this skew things? Profoundly. Blacks are the only voting bloc that backs the Democratic agenda in lockstep. Polls showed that up to 76 percent of blacks oppose the recall. The poll thus showed a phony tie.
This is not unimportant. In the weeks to follow, major media widely reported the recall was tied. The Times' own journalists began reporting the tie as fact, on the front page, dispensing with the crucial ethic of disclosing that they were relying on their own poll. Some voters may have tossed their absentee ballots. Some candidates may have disastrously changed strategies. (For example, why was Cruz Bustamante so condescending during the Sacramento debate?)
Later, a far more exacting poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, which showed the recall well ahead (as it always was), received far less attention from the media. It took last weekend's stunning Gallup-conducted poll for CNN-USA Today, showing the recall ahead by 63 percent, to blow past the media misperceptions created by the Times data.
Now, the Times has published a poll conforming to the others. It shows the recall ahead 56 percent to 42 percent and gives Arnold Schwarzenegger a solid lead. (For this poll, the Times abandoned its unsupportable practice of adding in far too many black voters.)
The recall is a major power struggle, not a circus. Many of the players have plenty to lose - and not all of them are candidates. Numbers have been used to manipulate the public and to gain advantage where none is due. But it's not over yet. Get out your calculators, folks, because we are in for quite a ride.