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In CA, It Wasn't the Economy, Stupid, It Was Character

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By Phil Trounstine and Jerry Roberts
www.calbuzz.com

In their last pre-election survey, Oct. 10-17, the Public Policy Institute of California found that six in 10 likely voters said jobs and the economy represented the most important issue facing California and that by a margin of 47-39%, Meg Whitman would do a better job on this pressing concern.

Moreover, while the survey showed Brown leading Whitman 44-36%, it oddly found "independents" - that is, respondents identified as likely voters who said they were registered as independents -- divided 36-37% for Whitman.

But in PPIC's post-election survey taken Nov. 3-14 and released Wednesday night, Brown won the "independents" 56-38% -- a staggering shift of 19 points in Brown's favor. In addition, according to PPIC, Latinos who favored Brown 51-22% in October ended up voting for Brown over Whitman by 75-22% -- a 24 point move to Brown.

By comparison, the Field Poll's last survey (based on actual registered voters surveyed Oct. 14-26) had Brown winning independents 49-33% and the L.A. Times/USC survey from Oct. 13-20 (also based on registered voters) had independents for Brown 55-26%.

Field had Latinos favoring Brown 57-27% before the election and the LAT/USC survey had Latinos backing Brown 59-23%.

Before trying to make sense of these numbers, consider a few findings from the LA Times/USC survey also taken Nov. 3-14 among actual registered voters:

1) Among those who said they think of themselves as independents instead of Democrats or Republicans (not the same as PPIC's question which asks respondents how they are registered), just one third of those who said they're independents were actually registered as Decline-to-State voters.

2) Among Latino voters, Whitman's unfavorable rating was 71% compared to 17% favorable. Among registered DTS voters, it was 65% unfavorable and 22% favorable.

3) Latinos favored Brown over Whitman 80-15% (compared to the National Election Pool exit poll that said Latinos backed Brown 64-30%).

Confused yet? What the hell actually happened?

Did something occur in the closing weeks of the campaign that drove all of the undecided "independents" in PPIC's survey to Brown? Or were they already lined up behind him as Field and LAT/USC found? How big was the Latino margin for Brown in the end? What actually drove the vote?

First, let's look at the independent voters. According to the LAT/USC survey, they voted 59-33% for Brown which is not far off from PPIC's 56-38%. The difference is in the shift that PPIC found versus what the LAT/USC and Field had before the election. PPIC's survey suggests a huge movement of independents for Brown. It's hard to see what could have driven that.

But the movement among Latinos - about 15-20% of whom are likely DTS voters - is easily explained by Whitman's handling of her housekeeper, Nicky Diaz. In the end, somewhere between 65-80% of Latinos ended up voting for Jerry Brown. With a 71% unfavorable rating among Latinos, that's not hard to comprehend.

Mark Baldassare of PPIC argues that his polls in October and November were both correct, and that the same things that drove Latinos to Brown also may have propelled independents. We suspect it's more likely that the problem is rooted in using questions, rather than actual voter lists, to identify "independents" and that the October survey, for whatever reason, didn't capture what was actually happening among actual DTS voters. (PPIC has to ask questions to identify likely voters and to classify them by party because it uses random digit dialing instead of working from the Secretary of State's list of registered voters.)

But let's go back to that PPIC finding in October that showed the economy was the top issue and that voters saw Whitman as better on the issue than Brown.

What the data all seem to suggest is something Calbuzz has argued several times before: that the race for governor did not turn on issues, but on character. In the end, voters saw Brown as the more authentic candidate whose values reflected more closely their own. By emphasizing that he would not raise taxes without voter approval, he made himself safe to moderate voters who didn't like what they saw from Whitman.

By emphasizing "at this stage of my life" Brown wanted nothing more than to do what needed to be done, he undercut the attacks that portrayed him as a tool of unions and other special interests.

In other words, the conventional wisdom - that the election would turn on the economy and jobs - turned out to be completely wrong. That's the ground on which team Whitman wanted to fight, but once the Bill Clinton ad blew up in her face and she refused to take it down, and once Nicky Diaz surfaced, the stories that captured voters' attention were all about character and integrity.

Why does any of this matter? Because when the story of the 2010 California governor's race is written, it should not make it all about independents and Latinos except to the extent that these voters were moved by impressions of the character of the combatants.

BTW, the PPIC survey goes into great detail looking at the propositions and the initiative process. It's chock full of interesting data that we're not even touching on here.

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