Arnold needs weak rival to win again

first_imgJUST a couple of weeks into his new job as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign boss, it’s clear former White House operative Matt Dowd has a fundamental misunderstanding of what his man needs to win his ongoing run for re-election. Here’s an excerpt from a memo he sent to political reporters the other day: “In the latest Field Poll, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s overall approval is at 40 percent … Looking back at the last governor of California to win re-election (Democrat Gray Davis in 2002), Davis had a similar approval rating. The Field Poll showed his approval between 39 to 42 percent … The governor is well-positioned in this very close race.” Dowd has his facts right, but his interpretation wrong. Davis was extremely unpopular in early 2002, the tail end of an electricity crisis voters blamed on him, justified or not. So Dowd has missed one key point. There is no clear proximate cause for Schwarzenegger’s abysmal poll ratings, as there was for the plunge in approval of Davis. If voters view Arnold negatively now, it’s because of how they perceive his general conduct since his early days in office, when his approval scores ran near double today’s. Dowd made one other point in his memo: “Races are about choices,” he said. That was certainly true for Davis, and no one knows this better than Garry South, the key Davis adviser who now runs state Controller Steve Westly’s drive for the Democratic nomination to run against Schwarzenegger. South boldly spent millions of dollars on television commercials during the 2002 primary season, the ads attacking former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan because the Davis camp rated him that year’s biggest Republican threat. The tactic worked. The ads Davis placed let financier William Simon swamp early favorite Riordan in the GOP primary, and Davis then beat Simon handily that November. As Dowd said, that race was about matchups. No matter how unpopular Davis became, Simon never came close to him in any poll. This fall’s runoff election will also be about a choice, between Schwarzenegger and either Westly or state Treasurer Phil Angelides. Just now, polls show both Angelides and Westly running about even with Schwarzenegger, despite the fact that fewer than 30 percent of voters could identify either Democrat for pollsters. This represented a slight gain for Schwarzenegger since last fall, when his four ballot initiatives lost badly and he was a constant target for negative advertising. Essentially, the poll numbers making Dowd feel optimistic these days indicate that Schwarzenegger desperately needs the Democratic equivalent of Simon in order to win. There is some doubt either Democratic contender would prove that kind of patsy. For one thing, Simon represented the furthest extreme conservative wing of this state’s minority party. Angelides comes from the liberal wing of a party with a large plurality among registered voters, while Westly has long been more of a centrist. Either would begin the fall campaign with a far larger base of support than Simon ever possessed. And then there is recent history. Schwarzenegger is the only Republican to win a top-of-the-ticket office in California during the 12 years since ex-Gov. Pete Wilson’s re-election in 1994. But Schwarzenegger ran in a fast-moving, very short recall election in which his movie stardom gave him a huge edge over all other candidates. No Republican has won a race for the U.S. Senate or a presidential race in California since 1988 a period of 18 years. But Republicans talked big all through that period of decline. “We’re going to make it easy; we are going to win California,” boasted President Bush’s chief adviser Karl Rove before the 2004 election. Bush lost California by a 55-44 percent margin even though Democrat John Kerry spent almost nothing on advertising here. Dowd ran Bush’s polling operation that year, working for Rove. Was he feeding falsely optimistic information about California to his boss? Or was Rove merely blowing smoke? Either way, is Dowd merely spinning today? The bottom line is simple: The polls reveal that despite massive press and television coverage of his every move, despite routinely drawing literally 10 times as many reporters and TV cameras to his events as either of his prospective opponents ever has, despite a respite of five months from negative advertising and the surfeit of ink and TV time lavished on his construction bond plan, Schwarzenegger has not raised his approval ratings much. He desperately needs an opponent as weak as Simon proved to be, and only time will tell if either Westly or Angelides will meekly oblige. Thomas D. Elias is a writer living in Southern California. 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