Political Rutting Season Begins Early for 2010 California Governor’s Race8 min read

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There’s a lot of conventional wisdom being talked up at the moment that if Dianne Feinstein decides to run for governor in the Golden State in 2010 that all potential rivals should see the handwriting on the wall and not bother to run. This has replaced the conventional wisdom of the week before that should our Attorney General, Jerry Brown, himself a two term occupant of the Governor’s office(if not the governor’s mansion), that he would surely win given his name identification and polling numbers.

The gubernatorial primary is two months shy of 2 years from now. All of this reminds me of just how wrong the conventional wisdom was in a much shorter time frame—less than a year ago when folks were told it was time to get on the Hillary Clinton bandwagon and that she was surely going to be the Democratic nominee. For a reminder of just how wrong that conventional wisdom was—not only about Barack Obama—but about many other prognostications, take a look at the New York Times compendium from March, “Soothsaying: A Scorecard on Conventional Wisdom.”

Feinstein is being touted on the basis of a poll conducted by Jim Moore, well known in Sacramento amongst insiders as being a very good private pollster. His numbers show Dianne Feinstein far ahead of her rivals and with a very high favorable to unfavorable view amongst California’s likely voters.

Indeed, the California Field Poll taken in June shows her with a 48% to 32% approval rating with registered voters and a whopping 64% to 19% amongst Democrats and a 47% to 31% approval from the state’s non-partsian/others. And she’s been popular for years and re-elected as a U.S. Senator since her first win for that office in 1992.

And, while most media attention in 2006 was focused on the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election, by a 16.9% margin, the honor of the biggest statewide blowout went to Senator Feinstein who won by a whopping 24.4% margin over Republican Dennis Mountjoy, 59.5% to 35.1%. At the time, we reported that Feinstein also got the largest vote total of any statewide candidate, over 5 million votes and that her victory was probably the largest vote total for any candidate nationwide in 2006.

Matier and Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle first reported on Moore’s poll . Our own Bill Cavala who had seen the actual private poll data, suggested that while there is no sure bet in politics, it appears to be not only over for any would be Democratic rivals, but that Republicans should also pick up their toys and go home if Feinstein decides to run. Bill is as good a reader of the tea leaves as I know. He’s a hundred percent right much more than fifty percent of the time.

And we have in Willie Brown’s column today in the San Francisco Chronicle, saying as much in his column today: “If Feinstein’s in, Dem rivals should bow out.” If you have the time, check out Willie’s article and the 151 comments it has so far engendered.

I have no reason to doubt that Jim Moore’s numbers are scientifically accurate and reflect the reality of what would happen today if California Democrats and independents who can vote in a primary woke up and discovered that they had to vote for a nominee for governor. But there’s a reason we have elections–and the voters have proven fickle when given a choice in who to vote for.

Willie Brown has it right when he says “But trust me, Dianne needs to be assured she is going to win before she runs for anything. There is no way at this stage of her life that she would risk a loss.” Many commenters to his article have asked why she would at this stage in her life run for governor—and she hasn’t even decided. According to my sources, neither has Brown decided to run, despite the chatter which sees everything he does as AG as a prelude to running—despite the merits of his forward thinking policy decisions and his steadfast fight for enforcing the laws California has on the books.

But I’m not so sure Brown has it right when he says matter of factly:

“If she does get in, it’s over, at least on the Democratic side. Everybody, and I mean everybody, else steps out.

“That would mean Jerry Brown would stay on as attorney general – which means that San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who has been thinking of running for AG, would probably run for mayor instead.”

If this logic were followed by would-be candidates, Obama would not have run for President.

Remember that Feinstein has not been tested in a primary for some time by a significant challenger. There are many in the Democratic Party who are unhappy with some of her positions as a U.S. Senator and there was a serious move to have the party censure her last year. That certainly does not mean that a majority of Democrats would not vote for her in a Democratic primary for governor—but is a good predictor that there will be opposition.

It may be, if she runs, that she will prove to be unstoppable. But bear in mind what the New York Times article points out as to “conventional wisdom”:

“The economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “conventional wisdom” in “The Affluent Society,” his 1958 book. He was describing expectations commonly ascribed to an omniscient “public sentiment.” In that time, a small, powerful class of broadcasters, columnists, thinkers and political leaders trafficked in such assumptions, often faulty (e.g., “a Catholic will never become president”).

“Today, new swarms of self-styled pundits can formulate conventional wisdom, or merely advance it, in any number of forums — e-mail, cable, blogs, talk radio. Conventional wisdom now just seems to bubble up, fatherless, with minimal brain work or reflection behind it. Its life cycle — the creation, debunking and subsequent hand-wringing of “old” conventional wisdom — has been radically compressed.

““The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events,” Mr. Galbraith wrote, and never has the march of events trampled so harshly upon conventional wisdom as it has in this election.” [Emphasis added]

My old and long departed friend Joe Close had a phrase he would use when the time came for candidates to dissuade others from entering the field. He called it “political rutting season,” usually with a wry smile on his face. Joe took his politics seriously, but not without a sense of humor and delight in all the head fakes and attempted power plays. It was said of Joe that if there was a meeting of three or more Democrats in Alameda County that he would be there. He was a friend of Cavala’s too.

If you want to read about the rutting season, there’s a nice description that will give you an understanding of what Joe was talking about and why he had a smile on his face in using this phrase. Here’s a portion:

“To know elk, you must also know that the seasons determine what the elk do. The seasons will bring the elk down from the high country just as the seasons will allow elk to return to the high country. The seasons also tell elk when it is time to begin the rut…. This is more than likely the hunters favorite time of year, the early part of fall. The time of the year that not only hunters get excited, but the elk as well. It is that time of year that one can listen to the majestic bull elk bugle in the high country. A sound like no other as it makes the adrenaline pump through every elk hunter’s veins. A sound that can only be appreciated by listening to it in the wilds of elk country.

“During the rut, a bulls neck and hump may swell to twice it’s normal size. The hair on the mane will grow darker and longer, and the antlers will be dark with white tips. All these features will help the bulls to look more massive than they already are. He will be very aggressive with outstretched neck, raised hackles, deep bugle, and shake his antlers violently. This will show him as being an overwhelming opponent, and not to be messed with.” [Corrections made for misspellings in the original]

Joe, wherever you are, I know you are smiling. I bet we have a contested Democratic primary for governor in California in 2010. The election returns are not in—yet. Polls and conventional wisdom are more often right than not—but not necessarily this far out. Political rutting season is here, a bit early this season.

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