Democratic race full of serious angst |

Democratic race full of serious angst

Rarely have two candidates exhibited more pure angst (German for a combination of fear, tension and anxiety) than Phil Angelides and Steve Westly, the two Democrats now waging a seesaw race for their party’s nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this fall.

The reason: Once considered almost worthless because of Schwarzenegger’s celebrity and his onetime high popularity ratings, the Democratic nod has become extremely valuable as more and more voters tell public pollsters they are determined not to reelect the governor.

In the most recent major survey, fully 48 percent of voters said in late April they will “definitely” or “probably” vote against Schwarzenegger, no matter who the Democrats nominate, compared with just 31 percent determined to back the incumbent. If that holds up, the Democratic nominee could win by getting a paltry 10 percent of the votes now classed as undecided.

This makes the stakes far higher in the Democratic primary than most thought they could be back when state Treasurer Angelides and state Controller Westly began their runs.

You can see the tension this has produced in the faces of the two contenders and the things they and their aides say and don’t say.

Take the subject of daily tracking polls, mini-surveys of a hundred or so voters usually taken by campaigns as an election nears.

“We are consistently ahead in our polling,” says Garry South, chief advisor to Westly, who also leads in every public poll, but by varying margins. How far ahead? South is asked. “It varies, but I can’t tell you the margins,” he responds.

By contrast, when South was managing the Gray Davis re-election bid in 2002 and feeling secure, he happily provided reporters with precise tracking poll numbers that could be contrasted with those reported by the campaign of Republican rival Bill Simon. Even during the 2003 recall campaign, when Davis was a sure loser, South provided numbers. Not this time.

Meanwhile, chief Angelides consultant Bob Mulholland denied that his candidate was doing any daily polling. “It’s way too far out from the election to do any tracking,” Mulholland said less than six weeks before the June 6 primary.

In modern times, no major candidate in California has failed to conduct daily polling during the three months before an election. Information from these surveys is invaluable to campaign officials trying to learn which television ads get results and which don’t, which issues resonate with voters from one day to the next. Some candidates begin tracking fully 18 months before an election, so the notion that Angelides was not polling in late April and early May borders on the preposterous.

But when candidates are edgy about what internal polls show, they can claim to depend solely on public surveys like those of the Field Institute or the Public Policy Institute, which appear at intervals of several weeks.

Meanwhile, Angelides and Westly display similar nervousness about the apparent disconnect between the mass of Democratic voters – favoring Westly for the last two months in every major survey – and die-hard Democratic activists who become delegates to the party’s annual state convention, which endorsed Angelides by more than a 2-1 margin.

“The party endorsement was never in our plans,” said South, downplaying his man’s inability to keep Angelides from getting the 60 percent of delegate votes needed to win the official party endorsement and the money and organizational aid that goes with it. He noted that the last Democrat to win a party endorsement in a contested primary for governor was former Attorney General John Van de Kamp in 1990. Van de Kamp eventually lost the primary to Dianne Feinstein, later defeated by Republican Pete Wilson.

Meanwhile, Angelides was happy but nervous, saying the only reason for the contrast between his standing in major polls and his showing among delegates was television commercials. “If you see a constant stream of ads saying ‘Eat at Tom’s,’ you might feel it’s worth a try eating at Tom’s,” he said. “Westly has had a constant stream of ads. When the voters get to know us the way the delegates do, they will come to the same conclusion as the delegates. The only reason for the disconnect now is Westly’s money.” In fact, Westly had outspent Angelides by better than 2-1 as of May 1, and his personal fortune permits him to sustain that edge if he wishes.

So the angst evident now in both camps will remain. Both candidates have reason to believe they have a chance to defeat Schwarzenegger this fall, making this primary vastly more important than many suspected it would be. And the huge number of undecided primary voters in every poll – ranging from 30 percent to 50 percent – gives them even more reason to be nervous, as it renders this race the least predictable in decades.


Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist whose work appears in The Union. Contact him via e-mail at

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