Were the results of yesterday's Public Policy Institute of California poll an early obituary for the budget reform measures on the May 19 ballot?
Far from it, say the folks behind Budget Reform Now, the coalition organized by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political team to promote the measures. The reason the PPIC poll is misleading, they argue, is that it does not accurately reflect the feelings of the relatively small number of voters who will cast ballots in May.
The PPIC contacts people through random telephone calls and then asks a series of questions to determine whether they are likely to vote. Using that methodology, more than 50 percent of the adults contacted were classified as likely voters -- and they said they were leaning against Proposition 1A, 39 percent to 46 percent.
In a memo distributed to reporters today, the committee's political operative Rick Claussen says its internal polling, which contacts only registered voters, uses a turnout model of 30 percent (a far more likely scenario for a special election in May). Using that model, Claussen says, the committee's polling shows 50 percent support and 37 percent oppose.
In either scenario, there is a high number of undecided voters -- and Claussen notes that the Budget Reform Now committee has the resources to reach out to and persuade those voters between now and May.
It's a plausible argument, even if it is self-serving.
The determining factor remains what it has always been: Will there be an organized, well-funded opposition campaign? If Arnold's coalition has the campaign playing field all to itself, its track record shows it can overcome initial voter reluctance and win a ballot measure campaign. That happened with Propositions 56 and 57 in 2004, again with the infrastructure bonds in 2006, and yet again with Proposition 11 last fall. The record also suggests, however, that a well-funded opposition can beat the Schwarzenegger fund-raising machine. That's what happened in the ill-fated 2005 special election.
It appears the fate of Proposition 1A is largely in the hands of the two wealthy high-tech entrepeneurs seeking the Republican nomination for governor: Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman. If either decides to try to curry favor with the virulently anti-tax wing of the Republican Party by writing a large check to finance an opposition campaign, the measure will likely go down. Both have spoken out against Prop. 1A, but neither has yet backed up those words with money.
One can picture the two of them, each holding their checkbooks at their side like Old West gunslingers, eyeing the other to see if he or she will start to make a move.
The one thing likely keeping either of them from drawing first is the thought that if they run for governor, they might actually become governor. And whoever becomes governor in January 2011 will be in a whole lot better position to govern if the temporary tax increases that could be cut short by Prop. 1A's defeat are still in place for another two years. Poizner and Whitman's advisers are surely telling them that if they draw their checkbooks now, they could very well end up shooting their potential governorship in the foot.