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The Election Where Nobody Came

“Democrats, for some strange reason, didn’t go out and vote in the force that we thought they would,” said Garry South, Gray Davis‘ political consigliere and maid-of-all-work, on the morning after his boss’ squeaker of a re-election.

In the chill sun of hindsight, of course, things look clearer and bleaker than they did before, but that doesn‘t make it an unfair question to ask South just why the hell he thought Democrats would turn out in decent numbers to boost his boss. Surely it wasn’t because Davis had paid heed to the sensitivities of Democratic voters. Surely it wasn‘t because Davis had inspired Democrats with his vision for a second term. Surely it wasn’t because his $65 million campaign invested heavily in a get-out-the-vote operation.

And surely South must know that a relentlessly negative campaign relentlessly drives down turnout -- as it surely did last week in California. While turnout nationally rose a couple of points from the last midterm election due to exceptional Republican mobilization, in the Golden State it plummeted. When all the absentee ballots are tallied, the percentage of registered California voters who actually voted is expected to come in at 50 percent -- the lowest since the state started measuring such things in 1910, and a full eight points lower than the turnout in the gubernatorial election of 1998.

In centers of Democratic strength, the drop-off in turnout was more precipitous still. In Los Angeles, San Francisco and Alameda counties, voter participation declined by an aggregate of 12 percent. Which can only mean that black and Latino voting was disproportionately down.

The L.A. Times exit poll of California -- the only functioning exit poll in the nation last week, what with the collapse of the networks‘ Voter News Service -- showed that the Latino share of California voters declined from 13 percent to 10 percent over the past four years, and that the black share declined from 13 percent to an anemic 4 percent. Calculating the share of the voters that a given group constitutes is perhaps the most difficult challenge that exit polls confront, and I’m not convinced the declines were actually that large. Even if they weren‘t, however, the super-low turnout in the Democrats’ strongholds means that the declines were genuine and pronounced.

And why shouldn‘t they have been? Davis caused a furor in the state’s African-American community by refusing to sign a bill that would have measured racial profiling by police. He caused an uproar in Latino California by vetoing Assemblyman Gil Cedillo‘s bill establishing a process through which undocumented immigrants could get drivers’ licenses.

On issues of concern to working-class voters generally, Davis had a better record -- creating paid family leave, restoring overtime pay for a workday longer than eight hours -- but that was hardly the focus of his campaign. California‘s unions carried that message to their members, and the union member and union household a share of the electorate held steady at its 1998 and 2000 rates. But in 21st-century America, the non-unionized working class dwarfs its unionized counterpart, and if Davis had much of a get-out-the-vote program for that sector of the electorate -- or any other -- it sure managed to slip beneath my radar, and everyone else’s.

Garry South was hardly the only California pol inclined to absurdities on the morning after the big vote. In best bipartisan fashion, numerous California Republicans succumbed to folly of their own by proclaiming the Democrats‘ sweep a hopeful moment for the state GOP. “This is a great election for California Republicans,” said GOP state Senate leader Jim Brulte. “Gray Davis won by [only] five points.”

It’s unarguably true that Davis‘ margin of victory declined a full 15 points from his 1998 blowout victory over Dan Lungren. But for the GOP to discern a resurgence from this year’s tea leaves is sheerest fantasy.

Republicans got close this year because the collapse of the Democratic base was steeper than that of any other part of the electorate. In consequence, the share of the electorate that was white, according to the Times exit poll, rose from 64 percent four years ago to 76 percent this year. Whether or not that figure is precisely accurate, it underscores why the GOP is still not really competitive in California: For the Republicans to win in this state, you have to believe the nonwhite share of the electorate will continue to shrink.

And that‘s a proposition that’s plainly preposterous. Before last week, the Latino share of the electorate had risen steadily for a decade and a half, and there‘s no earthly reason to think it won’t resume its upward climb in 2004. Even by the standards of American politics, a candidate choice as depressing as Davis-vs.-Simon comes along only once in a blue moon.

Had this election revealed a Latino swing toward the Republicans, of course, then that, too, could have sparked the GOP‘s dreams of state power. But it didn’t. Dan Lungren pulled down 23 percent of the Latino vote in Davis‘ landslide four years ago, according to the Times poll. Bill Simon raised that to 24 percent in Davis’ close call last week, the Times tells us. (Indeed, something the GOP should find less than encouraging: Among all voters, the Davis of ‘02 ran 10.5 percent behind the Davis of ’98, but Simon ran just 4 percent better than Lungren. The Davis defectors didn‘t necessarily move to the Republicans or even to their right; the vote for the Green gubernatorial candidate rose by 3 percent from ’98 to ‘02 as well.)

When it came to voting on issues, moreover, California Latinos showed themselves again to be by far the leftmost group in the state. The Times exit poll covered just two statewide initiatives, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful Proposition 49, which set aside state funds for expanding after-school programs, and the unsuccessful Proposition 52, which would have legalized election-day voter registration had it passed. Latinos supported both by margins higher than any group in the state: 78 percent for after-school programs, 65 percent for election-day registration.

None of this suggests that a Republican running on anything resembling a Republican platform could win California in the foreseeable future. If Schwarzenegger becomes a candidate for governor four years hence, he will have to run on a platform that calls for increases in spending on schools and affordable housing, that‘s pro-choice, pro-environment, and even somewhat pro-union. In short, to win, he’ll have to run as a left-coast version of George Pataki, the Republican governor who just swept to re-election in New York with considerable union and Latino backing because he took precisely those kinds of stances. Whether Republican voters will cut Arnold that much slack in the primary -- they cut Richard Riordan off at the knees for even the mildest form of moderation -- remains to be seen, though their desperate desire for victory may by then have conquered their qualms. If Karl Rove has anything to say about it, of course, Arnold will have no primary opposition.

Unfortunately, while the Times poll was the only functioning exit poll in the land last week, it wasn‘t a very curious exit poll. More precisely, it showed a curious lack of interest in funding the over-polling of Los Angeles that would have been necessary to produce an exit poll on Valley secession. To understand just how secession went down, we are left with such imperfect measures as looking at the vote by council district. Imperfect though these measures be, they paint a pretty clear picture of who wanted in and who wanted out in last week’s vote.

Citywide, the measure lost by a resounding 68 percent to 32 percent margin. In the Valley, it eked out a bare 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent majority -- losing in the three increasingly Latino districts of the East Valley, and carrying only in the two heavily white districts of the West Valley, which were the only two of the city‘s 15 council districts where it carried at all. It carried Denny Zine’s 3rd District, in the southwest Valley, with 57 percent support, and Hal Bernson‘s 12th District in the northwest Valley -- long the city’s most conservative -- with 61 percent support. By contrast, secession only polled 40 percent in Council president Alex Padilla‘s overwhelmingly Latino 7th District in the northeast Valley. And -- I’m including this for those who predicted that Mayor Hahn‘s sacking of Bernie Parks would drive black L.A. into the secessionists’ arms -- in Mark Ridley-Thomas‘ 8th District in South-Central, which boasts the highest percentage of black voters, Valley secession won a whopping 10 percent of the vote.

From which numbers, two conclusions: First, that only the disproportionately light turnout of Latino Democrats saved the secessionists from going down in the Valley, too. And second, that it’s impossible to look at these numbers and not conclude that secession had majority support only among white Valley conservatives, whose estrangement from their city was likely rooted in political impulses more sinister than a desire for better services.

From the Valley to Staten Island to that dustup in the middle of the 19th century, secession in America is almost always about white separatism.

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