LOS ANGELES, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- Tuesday's meltdown of the Voter News Service's national exit polling system left election analysts desperate for data to help them understand the demographic underpinnings of the shift to the Republicans.
The first major regional exit poll -- the Los Angeles Times' survey of 3,444 California voters, which was released early this morning -- clears up some of the mystery surrounding one of Tuesdays' most surprising outcomes: the apparently forlorn California gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon's strong showing in defeat. In doing so, the California poll also sheds an important perspective on the question of just how rapidly the minority share of the electorate is actually growing.
In the 1998 California governor's race, Gray Davis drubbed the popular Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren by 20 percentage points, ending 16 years of GOP occupancy of the governor's office in Sacramento. This was widely attributed to the rapid increase in minority voters, especially Hispanics, who were said to have become permanently politically energized by anger at former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's endorsement of the anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187 in 1994.
When the Census Bureau subsequently announced that whites had become a minority within California, this was often assumed to prove that the age of minority domination of California politics had officially arrived. In turn, California, with its huge immigrant population, was seen as the forerunner of America's multicultural political future.
For last Tuesday's election, Davis raised a war chest of almost $70 million, which he expended to mercilessly pummel his GOP rival, political novice Bill Simon. Many political commentators derided Simon, a devout Catholic and free marketer, as too conservative for California. On election day, several television pundits agreed that he had run "the worst campaign in California history."
Yet, the seemingly hapless Simon surprised the media by ultimately coming within five percentage points of Davis, closing three-quarters of the gap between Democrats and Republicans that had opened in Davis's 1998 victory over Lungren. And Simon did it with practically no help from George W. Bush, who had backed Simon's more liberal rival, Richard Riordan, in the Republican primary. (In California in 2000, Bush lost to Al Gore by 11 points.)
So, what happened in 2002? The L.A. Times exit poll suggests that the big difference between 1998 and 2002 was the collapse of minority turnout in California.
Although exit polls are not perfectly reliable, as the travails of VNS showed, they can offer a quick and not too dirty analysis of the demographics of the electorate. (They have a difficult time accounting for absentee voters, however, who make up an increasing share of the electorate.) In the L.A. Times poll, the margin of error (95 percent confidence interval) for the entire sample is plus or minus two points. (It is greater for subgroups such as minorities, though).
Extrapolating from the exit polls, the number of votes cast by minority voters in California plummeted almost to half of their 1998 level, from 3 million down to what should turn out to be 1.7 million or 1.8 million when all the absentee and provisional ballots are counted. Meanwhile, the total number of white votes probably will roughly equal the 5.4 million cast in 1998.
The minority share of the California electorate dropped from 36 percent in the 1998 to 24 percent this year. In turn, the white share rose from 64 percent to 76 percent.
The much-discussed Latino segment appears to have receded since 1998, falling from 13 percent to 10 percent. (That is within the margin of error, however). The Asian vote likewise was found to have slipped from 8 percent to 6 percent. The big loser, according to the poll, was the African-American sector, whose share dropped from 13 percent to 4 percent.
This surprising development requires further analysis as more data becomes available. One suggested explanation, however, is that in a race like this with two unappealing candidates, the more casual voters will tend to skip voting, leaving mainly those with either a strong sense of civic duty about voting or a strong ideological stance.
In support of the latter idea, those who call themselves "liberal Democrats" increased from 16 percent of the voters in 1998 to 27 percent in 2002. Similarly, "conservative Republicans" grew from 21 percent to 27 percent. So, those who consider themselves moderates dropped from 63 percent in 1998 to 46 percent on Tuesday.
Although there has been a lot of talk about Republican outreach to minorities, the party's shares of minority votes didn't change much. Among Hispanics, the Republican share grew from 23 percent to 24 percent. Among Asians, the GOP improved from 35 percent to 37 percent. And among blacks, Republican voters dropped from 22 percent to 10 percent.
While 2002 may (or may not) go down in history as a fluke election in which California's minorities were uniquely unmotivated by the uninspiring candidates, it is a reminder that all across the country, even in California, the 800 pound gorilla of ethnic voting groups remains the whites.
In California, the GOP's biggest problem appears to be its inability to dominate white voters' loyalties in the same way that Democrats have a firm hold on minority voters. Davis smashed the Republicans in 1998 in part by beating Lungren 51 percent to 45 percent among whites. In 2000, Bush and Gore about broke even among California whites, which lead to Bush's double-digit loss in the state.
This year Simon won the white vote 46 percent to 43 percent. Still, without a more impressive margin among whites, California Republicans will have a hard time overcoming the deficit caused by the Democrats' strong appeal to minorities.