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As always, economy trumps all else

Voters may say they weigh a lot of issues when they’re all alone in the voting booth, but Tuesday’s results in California reinforced yet again what Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign insisted 11 years ago: It’s the economy, stupid.
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Half of California’s voters thought Tuesday’s recall election was a waste of money, but they still kicked Gov. Gray Davis out of office. More than two-thirds described themselves as moderate or liberal, but they still passed over the moderate Democratic lieutenant governor. And more of them thought favorably of a little-known state senator than they did of the world famous movie star, but they still elected neophyte Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Voters may say they weigh a lot of issues when they’re all alone in the voting booth, but Tuesday’s results reinforced yet again what Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign insisted 11 years ago: It’s the economy, stupid.

In one respect, the NBC News exit poll of voters showed that Californians meant it when they said the 135 candidates’ positions on the issues were more important than their leadership or personal qualities, a preference they expressed by 57 percent to 37 percent: Late allegations of sexual harassment and Nazi sympathies did not manage to derail the Schwarzenegger juggernaut.

But by “issues,” the voters really meant only one issue — California’s tanking economy.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor Tuesday, according to exit polls and phone polling of those who said they voted on an absentee basis, even though barely half the voters thought more favorably of him (51 percent) than not and even though 63 percent of them said he had failed to seriously address the issues.

He won even though the voters thought more favorably of state Sen. Tom McClintock, at 55 percent. He won even though a plurality (49 percent to 47 percent) thought the whole recall was a waste of the $66 million it cost.

Read his lips: no new taxesSchwarzenegger won because he offered a simple, catchy promise to fix California’s economy, which 83 percent of the voters said was broken. He persuaded them that he could deliver on his promise to erase the state’s deficit — estimated to hit $8 billion next year — without raising taxes.

That’s why, even though 69 percent of voters described themselves as moderate or liberal, the voters of California told two quintessential moderate-liberal Democrats — Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante — to take a hike. Both men registered high disapproval ratings — 71 percent for Davis, 57 percent for Bustamante.

The data suggested that Schwarzenegger’s victory was set in stone some time ago, and nothing short of a complete meltdown by the candidate could have stopped it.

The Los Angeles Times uncorked an exhaustive investigation last week that documented allegations of sexual harassment by Schwarzenegger on movie sets for the last 30 years. Then, this week, he was hit by a report by the moviemaker who made him famous in the documentary “Pumping Iron” that he had spoken admiringly of Adolf Hitler.

It didn’t matter. An astonishing 83 percent of California’s voters said they had already made up their minds before those two bombshells were dropped. Only 5 percent said they waited until this week to decide, and they split 50-50.

Despite the sexual harassment allegations, as many women expressed a favorable opinion of Schwarzenegger as not — 47 percent to 47 percent.

Other surprises
Support for the recall was across the board, winning the backing of 89 percent of Republicans, 55 percent of independents and even a quarter of Democrats.

But several other preconceptions were turned on their heads:

Although many pundits had predicted that the election would pull in a lot of first-time voters, 95 percent in NBC’s exit poll said they were regular voters — 73 percent said they always voted.

Despite predictions of dire ballot-box troubles, with 135 candidates spilling from one punch card to another for millions of voters using outmoded equipment, 88 percent said they had no problems figuring things out. Only an additional 6 percent said they had minor difficulties.

Although Schwarzenegger’s fame was expected to be a driving force in the election, well more than half — 57 percent — insisted that the candidates’ political stances were their determining factors. Slightly more than a third put more emphasis on leadership or personal qualities.

Expectations were that Bustamante’s campaign would draw a heavy number of Hispanic voters, who make up 33 percent of the state’s electorate. Three-fifths of Hispanic voters favored Bustamante, but they made up only 18 percent of Tuesday’s turnout. White turnout was disproportionately dominant, at 69 percent.

And yet, a measure heavily targeted at white voters — Proposition 54, which would have banned the state from using race, ethnicity or national origin to classify people in public education, contracting and employment — still was overwhelmingly defeated.

The NBC News exit poll is based on interviews with more than 4,100 voters as they left 60 precincts across the state Tuesday. In addition, the data include the results of telephone interviews with 400 California citizens who voted by absentee ballot. Those interviews were conducted from Sept. 29 through Sunday.