Dan Walters: Tight California gubernatorial, US Senate races jostle memory

On election night in 1982, California Democrats gathered in downtown Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel for what they hoped would be victory celebrations in two intense, very tight contests for governor and U.S. senator.

Supporters of outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown, the Democrats’ Senate candidate, and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, their gubernatorial hopeful, filled adjacent ballrooms. And as the election closed at 8 p.m., the state’s leading pollster, Mervin Field, appeared on a local television station with results from “exit polls” of the day’s voters.

Both rooms erupted in raucous celebration as Field declared that Bradley had won the governorship and Brown was a likely Senate victor. It turned out, however, that the partying was premature.

While Bradley won in Election Day voting, Republicans had waged a stealthy campaign for mail ballots, capitalizing on new rules for what was then called “absentee voting,” and when all votes were counted, Republican George Deukmejian won by 93,345 votes.

Meanwhile, Republican Pete Wilson defeated Brown by a half-million votes. Both were come-from-behind wins in a state with 52 percent more Democrats than Republicans.

This year, for the first time since 1982, California has two simultaneous, intense duels for governor and the Senate that promise to go down to the wire. But with five weeks of campaigning to go, two major polls are a bit divided on how close the two races may be.

Brown is again on the ballot with another bid for the governorship, and last week the Field Poll found him tied with Republican Meg Whitman at 41 percent each, with 18 percent still undecided or opting for a minor-party candidate.

Last weekend, however, a Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll showed Brown with a five-point lead, 49 percent to 44 percent. The Whitman camp quickly accused the Times/USC poll of poor methodology that skewed the results.

The two surveys actually used very similar samples of likely voters. But one major difference is that the Times/USC poll, unlike Field, asked a “push question” of uncommitted voters about how they were leaning.

Those factors also influence why the Times/USC poll found Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer faring better against GOP challenger Carly Fiorina (Boxer leading by 51 percent to 43 percent) than the Field Poll (47 percent to 41 percent).

Both races are headed for close finishes with turnout, mail-voting drives and notoriously fickle independent voters much more numerous than in 1982.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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