Sunday, 24 August 2003

What can political science tell us about the recall?

At first glance, the nation’s first statewide recall election in modern history seems like a fairly bad testing ground for past theories of political behavior. Yet there are a few things worth considering from the body of knowledge we already have from over 50 years of behavioral research (starting with Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee’s famous Elmira studies and the National Election Studies conducted at the University of Michigan):

  1. The psychological effect of Duverger’s Law should be strong. As we’ve seen with the dropout of Bill Simon, it affects not only voters but also contributors and candidates themselves. Seemingly paradoxically, this effect will be stronger among the “non-gadfly” candidates: someone who wants to vote for Arianna Huffington, Larry Flynt, or (my personal fave) Georgy Russell may find Cruz Bustamante or Arnold Schwarzenegger a poor substitute for their preferred candidate, but a Ubberoth or McClintock voter may find the “mainstream” candidates more appealing. The longer the polls indicate a close election, the more likely this election is to shape up essentially as a two-candidate race. (This even holds in situations like Democratic presidential primaries, where the proportional nature of delegate selection is a fairly well-kept secret from the electorate.)
  2. One interesting question is how the voting on the two-stage ballot will shape up. There are two groups of voters who are likely to vote no on the recall: those who want Davis to remain in office (probably around a quarter of the electorate, judging from his approval ratings) and those who believe that the second-stage winner will be a worse governor than Davis. Polls leading up to the election may determine how people vote on this question; if there is a sizeable contingent of hardcore Republicans who think Bustamante will win the second ballot, they may vote no on the recall, to retain the lame-duck Davis in office. Similarly, a Bustamante lead may encourage Democrats to vote yes on the recall, so a (potentially) strong incumbent can be on the ballot for the Democrats in 2006. The “no, Bustamante” strategy only makes sense for Democrats (at least, Democrats not named Gray Davis) in the context of a Republican (Schwarzenegger) lead; how long will they stick with it?
  3. How much can Bustamante divorce himself from Davis’ coattails without alienating Democratic voters? In 2000, Gore ran to the left, thinking he really needed to stop Democratic voters from defecting to Nader (which he actually didn’t need to do), and generally didn’t run on the Clinton record. On the other hand, Clinton’s approval rating was much higher than Davis‘, and the economy was doing significantly better too. Assuming it’s in Bustamante’s personal interest to win the election, it’s probably in his best interest to run away from Davis’ record. More importantly, in the absence of any credible challenger from the left, he can run to the right—which makes his announced tax hike package seem like a rather boneheaded move, suggesting more is at work in his campaign than a simple desire to win the recall election.

The one thing political science can’t do is forecast this election; there’s simply no precedent for it. The big question remaining is whether or not the “no” strategy on the part of the Democrats persists much into September; if it does, the election isn’t effectively Bustamante vs. Schwarzenegger; it becomes Gray vs. Arnold. My belief is that the former election is probably much more winnable for the Democrats than the latter.