MORE

Who’s Gonna Vote?

Maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger is right. Maybe people are leaving California in droves for the Nevada desert or the nightlife of Salt Lake City.

And maybe all the people who are leaving are Democrats. That’s just about the only way to make sense of the breathtaking CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of this past weekend, which showed the recall leading by a 63 to 35 percent margin, Arnold beating Cruz by an almost equally daunting 40 to 25 percent gap, and Tom McClintock pulling down a significant but not decisive 18 percent.

In fact, in Gallup’s sample, 47 percent of respondents were Republicans — this in a state where Republicans constitute just 35 percent of registered voters to the Democrats’ 45 percent. So let’s allow for Gallup getting carried away by the turnout tilt. Most private polls still show the recall up by about a dozen points (the new Times poll puts the margin at 14 percent), and Arnold handily beating the plunging Cruz.

The problem with this election has always been that on the question of Gray Davis, and with apologies to W.B. Yeats, the Democrats lack all conviction while the Republicans are full of passionate intensity. It’s not Arnold who’s engendered the passion: Republicans have had to be coaxed to support a candidate who opposes most of their stances on cultural issues. It’s Gray. California’s governor evokes all the rage that the right once showered on Bill Clinton, and none of the respect and affection that Democrats felt for their embattled president.

The campaign of Cruz Bustamante, meanwhile, always depended on the suspension of normal political rules. Before the recall, Cruz had already determined not to seek the governor’s office in 2006: Minus notable achievements, detectable charisma and measurable campaign contributions (save those from tribal casinos), he would have to back off and run for treasurer. Bustamante’s initial burst of support this summer suggested that he might just sneak through. But in the end, the realities have reasserted themselves: He’s still stuck with no achievements to point to, the charisma of week-old eggplant, and a series of fund-raising maneuvers that struck California voters as deeply corrupt and singularly inept.

That said, the case for Bustamante is much like the case for Davis: That in a state where new immigrant voters and social liberals have transformed the Democratic Party in the Legislature, California has become a laboratory for landmark progressive legislation in such areas as workers rights and environmental protections. And that Cruz, like Gray, would sign much of that legislation, while Arnold is tromping around the state demagoging against most of the economic-justice legislation that Democrats have passed to make California less of a two-tier society. One votes for Cruz — anyway, I do — despite Cruz, and so not to spite the state.

But Bustamante is such a hard sell that the labor and other Democratic operatives trying to hold California in the progressive column are campaigning chiefly against the recall. And the recall campaign is a slog at best. “These are our last few days of persuasion, up through Friday,” said Miguel Contreras, leader of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, on Monday. And labor’s task isn’t persuading voters who aren’t sure how to vote. “We have to win people back,” said Contreras. “Only a small percent are actually undecided.”

The political universe that labor is working in this election is narrower than in some elections past. It is campaigning among only those union members who are Democrats and independents; Republican members cannot be swayed. Likewise, it is doing its most ambitious effort yet among Spanish-speaking immigrant voters, contacting 800,000 of them across the state. Contreras says that 80 percent of the non-Republican unionists are opposing the recall — though the new Times poll casts doubt on those figures by reporting that all union members, Republicans included, support the recall by a 54 percent to 43 percent margin. Among Latinos, says Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union and acknowledged master of mobilizing immigrant voters, roughly 75 percent of those voters are voting no, too. But the gap between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking Latinos is substantial; 51 percent of the latter support the recall, according to a poll released last week by a number of groups including the Pew Hispanic Center.

For Republicans to carry a solidly Democratic state like California or New York, several things have to happen. The first is racial polarization among the Democrats, something that fairly leaps out from the current polling. Cruz is bombing among African-American voters; the Pew poll puts his level of black support at an anemic 17 percent. Gray, meanwhile, must try to win back Latino voters who so want to elect Cruz that they’ll vote for the recall.

Second, Democrats lose when they lose votes to their left, as Cruz still may to Pete Camejo.

The final way Republicans win in Democratic states is to run against Democrats who can’t turn out their base and have scant appeal to their periphery — that is, Gray Davis and Cruz Bustamante. The reason why Gray Davis won by just 5 percent last November was that nonwhite voters stayed away from the polls. If he loses this October, low black turnout will likely be part of the reason, compounded by the fact that Republicans will gleefully be voting all their living and some of their dead. Republicans can elect plurality governors in California, not majority governors. But against Gray Davis, and most certainly in a recall, a plurality is all that’s required.