Gray’s Close Call 

A few campaign lessons for the increasingly unpopular governor

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
Photo by Ted Soqui

GOVERNOR GRAY DAVIS waited in his 18th-floor suite at the Century Plaza Hotel for Bill Simon Jr. to concede. Ever cautious, Davis must have wondered whether voters’ high distrust of him might keep him from winning a second term. He didn’t dare go downstairs and address his supporters with only a 3-point lead, even though exit polling made his victory clear. He had planned to address supporters at 10:05 p.m., just in time to make TV newscasts around the state, but it wasn’t until shortly before midnight that Simon called to concede. Finally, Davis went downstairs.

A somewhat chastened Davis took the stage. As he noted that “Politics can be a very humbling business,” one of his advisers told the Weekly: “This race was won in March. It’s a good thing it was, too, given what happened around the rest of the country.” The adviser was referring to Davis’ intervention in the Republican primary, in which $10 million of attack ads knocked off front-running former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan.

Davis’ 5-point margin of victory exposes problems — with his nasty campaign, his relentless fund-raising and his failure to tout accomplishments. His triumph over the buffoonish Simon was much closer than the 15-to-20-point margin expected by top Democrats a few weeks ago, when Davis made a fateful decision: Just days after his campaign announced it would run only positive TV ads, the governor, concerned by a few points’ slippage in the polls, decided to go back to a heavy rotation of attack ads. Davis, whose public disapproval rating is 60 percent, felt the ads extolling his record and character weren’t working. He returned to the tried and true: slash and burn.

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The endless negativity further fed widespread voter disgust with Davis. By the end of last week, Democrats were resigned to a 10-point victory. By Monday night, worse seemed to be in store. A late tracking poll showed the division of the likely electorate was much closer than the 10-point registration gap between Democrats and Republicans and the expected 7-point participation gap among likely voters. Indeed, the difference in party participation was down to a mere 3 percent — with the fall-off among Democratic voters especially noticeable in the liberal stronghold of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Joining Davis and the Democratic ticket for a statewide fly-around on Monday, the Weekly noticed mostly small crowds on the last day of the campaign, reflecting the disaffection and disdain felt by many Californians. The disconnect was particularly striking in San Francisco, where only 300 people showed up for a noon rally in Union Square, the smallest campaign crowd I’ve ever seen there. Most of those in the crowd were either union members, or homeless people paid to attend and driven to the site in 14 vans.

The tightening race explained why, in a Tuesday-afternoon conversation over Diet Cokes in the Century Plaza’s lobby bar, campaign manager Larry Grisolano and press secretary Roger Salazar seemed anything but ebullient, in contrast to the air of triumph around last March’s primary-election night. Then, Davis seemed to have the opportunity to reintroduce himself to California, to regain some of the popularity lost during the electric-power crisis. Yet, though he went on to sign major pieces of popular, progressive legislation on renewable energy, global warming, stem-cell research, farm-workers’ rights and paid family leave, Davis never wove the accomplishments into a compelling narrative. Borrowing a line from an old movie (Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious), Davis consigliere and chief strategist Garry South said last Friday, referring to Bill Simon and the Republicans: “We are saved by the enormity of their stupidity.” True, but not exactly uplifting.

It was a strange and dispiriting campaign, though not without moments of humor. Asked to describe the weirdest thing that happened in the campaign, media consultant David Doak offered: “Well, that would have to be early this year at one of our focus groups where we were testing TV spots. [Pollster] Paul Maslin was just showing our biographical spot on Gray when he realized that the fellow sitting next to him was having a seizure! He was shouting and kicking his leg above his head.” Suffering from a diabetic episode, the man was okay once he received insulin. But in retrospect, it seems like an omen that his seizure began as he watched what turned out to be an infrequent attempt to convince voters of Davis’ merits.

On Monday’s flight from Fresno to L.A., the Weekly repeatedly tried to get Davis to ruminate on his experience in this campaign, to explain why voters are so distrustful of him. He would begin to talk in more human terms, about how he had “come through a storm,” but no matter how the half-dozen questions were phrased, he kept slipping back into prefab message mode, explaining away his lack of connection with the public by citing the power and budget crises. Finally, there was a spark of vision when he talked with evident pride about “California finally leading the way again” with new policies on renewable energy, global warming, stem-cell research and labor rights. Then he slipped back into criticizing Simon. Can the spark be further coaxed out? Or will the old reflex prevail?

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