It’s the Economy Stupid…Or Not

A woman searches the California Employment Development Department's CalJobs website at the unemployment office in Santa Ana.

Violeta Vaqueiro

A woman searches the California Employment Development Department's CalJobs website at the unemployment office in Santa Ana.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010 |The economy continues to be a leading factor in campaigns at the national level, with most incumbents uneasy about the groundswell of anger that could show up this summer and fall at the ballot box.

But it’s much more difficult to figure out how the economy will factor into local political races this June.

The latest Voice of OC/Probolsky poll on voter attitudes toward the economy found people in a better mood in Orange County than statewide, with 50.6 percent saying they thought the county was on the right track.

Yet local voters remain wary about the future, with a clear majority — 57.3 percent –expecting the economy to stay the same or get worse over the next year.

Campaigns for local offices like sheriff, county supervisor and treasurer/tax collector are factoring these numbers into their game plans for June… and November. And the economy has already has played a role in the 2010 election by making it challenging for candidates to raise money.

But given the myriad of issues that these races bring to the table — and the realities of modern campaigns in any election year — the formula for winning is more complicated than “it’s the economy stupid.”

Get-out-the-vote efforts, voter registration drives and independent expenditures on campaigns by business and labor groups will loom large in the election regardless of voters’ employment status and 401(k) balances.

Nonetheless, we are in The Great Recession and Democrats are running things in Washington, D.C. So expect Republican candidates in Orange County to echo the national talking points on the economy in their campaigns.

Last month, Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove told a crowd of local Republicans that they’ve been handed a ready-made issue to run on with all of the large spending bills sponsored by Democrats. He laid out a simple plan for GOP candidates: Make an issue out of the unsure economy and federal spending and get their people and independents to the polls.

Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh also has added public employee unions and their pensions into the mix. At last night’s central committee meeting, Baugh reiterated the local party message planned for June: unions and their pensions have gotten out of control and Democrats can’t say no. Party leaders see that issue locally as resonating with independents this summer and into the fall.

“You’ve got a very angry electorate and I think it (anger) doesn’t suppress turnout, it motivates turnout,” said Baugh, adding that independent voters are “angry and will vote in overwhelmingly large percentages.”

Statewide polling numbers back up Baugh’s assertions about the voters’ mood.

The statewide “right track” number hovers in the 30 percentile, said several independent pollsters. They said private polling results in other counties reveals a deep swell of anger — with the “right track” number in the teens in places like the Inland Empire.

But in Orange County the numbers paint a more muddled picture.

Most pollsters were surprised by the Orange County “right track” numbers, saying given the current economy, they are pretty good. The figure was likely higher here, the pollsters said, because the area hadn’t been hit as hard with job losses and foreclosures as others.

The Voice of OC poll found that Democratic (55.5 percent) and decline to state (58.7 percent) voters in Orange County are more likely to be in tune, in terms of feeling the county is on the right track.

Republicans (46.3 percent) are on the opposite end. But when it comes to feelings about the future of the economy, Republicans (24.3 percent) line up better with decline-to-state voters (27.3 percent) in their pessimism.

A large block of high-frequency voters (those who’ve voted in past elections) are also not too optimistic with 38.2 percent saying the county is on the wrong track.

Yet several contested races underway in the north and central parts of the county lend themselves to traditional party dynamics, meaning that they will most likely boil down to voter registration, get-out-the-vote and independent expenditure efforts.

Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro didn’t return calls for comment on the party’s campaign strategy for local races in June.

But in recent years, most of the local political action on the left side of the dial has come from labor.

Since 2006, labor union leaders have significantly expanded their voter registration efforts, moving away from supporting Democratic candidates and toward funding permanent non-partisan registration drives. Those efforts have swelled the numbers of registered Democrats and decline-to-state voters primarily in central Orange County.

Tefere Gebre, who heads the Orange County Labor Federation, reiterated that the registration drive was independent of the Democratic party and said it had morphed into a machine, churning out voters and maximizing costs with less than 5 percent going to administrative overhead.

That machine, Gebre said – along with a ton of union households – is now poised to make an impact on the fourth county supervisorial district election in June. He expects to be working phone banks to voters on behalf of Anaheim City Councilwoman Lorri Galloway.

She will likely vie with Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu and Fullerton Councilman Sean Nelson for the top slot in the special election to fill out the rest of former Supervisor Chris Norby’s term. Norby moved on to the State Assembly after winning a special election to finish the term of Assemblyman Mike Duvall who resigned after a sex scandal.

Last night, Nelson beat out Sidhu for the Republican central committee endorsement.

It’s too early to tell if the potential of labor money for Galloway will draw funds from the Republican establishment for Nelson.

Republicans also have drawn out candidates for two key offices upstream from the county supervisors building in Santa Ana. It’s uncertain how much money is slated for those two races.

Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez is being challenged by Republican State Assemblyman Van Tran for central county’s 47th Congressional District.

And Democratic State Senator Lou Correa is being challenged by Anaheim City Councilwoman Lucille Kring, who is a Republican.

The only way that local office seekers will likely move the voter dial to their race is by large mailings, which require large sums of cash in countywide races.

And judging from the anemic fundraising efforts by most local candidates so far and the few independent expenditure campaigns locally, nobody may have enough money to move enough voters to influence any race.

That lack of fundraising cash — arguably because so many traditional deep donor pockets are feeling a pinch — may be biggest impact the national economy plays in local races.

Just as important are the traditional factors that play a part in elections no matter the state of the economy: name identification, fundraising, outreach ability (mail) and how good of a job the voters see the incumbent doing.

And then, of course, there are always the issues other than the economy.

For example, gun rights issues will play a role in the sheriff’s election. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens — appointed to fill out the term of indicted Sheriff Mike Carona in 2008 — is a Republican.

But she faces two challengers who would likely advocate looser gun policies. Other non-economy issues will likely play a role in the races for supervisor, county treasurer/tax collector, the clerk/recorder and the public guardian.

“People do not expect their county supervisor to bring jobs, their judge to shrink government,” said Voice of OC Polling Director Adam Probolsky. “It’s still about what’s on the ballot…There’s not a whole lot of compelling things on the ballot in June.”

“The real question,” Probolsky noted, “Is there some groundswell of activism inciting people to show up at the polls?”

Some argue that the tea party movement is providing this groundswell. But those in the tea party are likely traditional voters who would be coming to the polls anyway. And because there’s not 200,000 of them in Orange County, they won’t likely shift numbers in local races that much.

“You’ll see a traditional primary turnout,” Probolsky said.

The telephone poll conducted between April 6 and April 11. Voters were asked two questions: Do you think that Orange County is generally on the right track or on the wrong track? Thinking about the economy in Orange County, do you think it will improve, stay about the same or get worse in the next twelve months? The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percent with a 95 percent degree of confidence.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the names of Tefere Gebre, the executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation, and Anaheim Councilwoman Lorri Galloway. We regret the errors.

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