Mayor Jim West may need to steal a page from Richard Nixon’s playbook if he wants to survive in elective office, a new poll suggests.
Just before ballots were mailed last week to Spokane city voters, a survey conducted for The Spokesman-Review and KREM 2 News indicates a strong majority – 60 percent – are poised to vote to recall West. Only one voter in three told pollsters last week they planned to vote against the recall and keep West as mayor.
Although a few more voters are saying they’ll vote against the recall than in a similar poll conducted last month, West still faces a difficult challenge to turn around public opinion with just over two weeks before the election, said Del Ali of Research 2000, a national polling firm based in Olney, Md.
“His best bet is to just go public and have a ‘Checkers’ type of speech, and let the chips fall where they may,” Ali said, referring to the dog mentioned in the 1952 speech that saved Nixon from being ousted as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice presidential nominee for allegedly accepting payments from donors.
Research 2000 conducts political polls all over the country and Ali has overseen local and state polls for The Spokesman-Review for more than a decade.
For this poll, his company contacted 1,105 registered city voters who said they definitely or likely would cast votes in the recall election. The survey was conducted Monday through Thursday of last week, before the city’s special investigator released his report that concludes West violated city policy for using his city computer to access “profane and pornographic information” and violated state law by offering a spot on the Human Rights Commission to a man “for the purpose of furthering his personal interest in an intimate relationship.”
West might change voters’ minds through a public appeal in which he admits his mistake, asks for forgiveness and makes a compelling argument that “everyone deserves a second chance,” Ali suggested.
West declined comment on the poll, repeating his position from last month that the results don’t matter.
“I don’t care about poll numbers,” he said. “The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.”
West’s spending reports for his recall campaign organization, Committee for Spokane’s Progress, however, indicate he spent $3,000 last month on polls with Moore Information of Portland, Ore. He also authorized an $8,000 expenditure by the city this summer with Moore to help determine whether voters would approve a property tax increase for police, fire and library services.
The mayor addresses some of the points suggested by Ali in his 249-word response to the recall charge on the ballot voters have or will soon receive. On the ballot, West denies using his office for personal gain, says he has not been charged with any crime or with misusing his office, and talks about improvements in the city.
“True, I have made errors in my private life, I apologized for those errors and I’ve asked for forgiveness,” West wrote before returning to the theme that he’s worked to improve the city. “Vote no on recall so we can continue to make Spokane a better place to live and work.”
The survey indicates most voters already have decided how they are going to vote, and the ballot language might not be enough to change many minds as they sit down to mark their ballots, Ali said.
Spokane resident Charles Schaffner, one of those 1,105 voters polled last week, said in a follow-up interview he thinks West does deserve a second chance.
“I think overall, as a mayor he’s done all right. He’s kept a pretty firm hand on things,” said Schaffner, who plans to mark his ballot against the recall and send it back as soon as he receives it.
Another city resident surveyed also is ready to vote but will mark her ballot “enthusiastically for the recall.”
That voter, a city worker who asked that her name not be used, said she thinks West should be ousted because any other city employee would be fired for using a city computer to contact people on an Internet chat room, discuss sex and look at sexually explicit pictures.
“I think he’s a hypocrite of the first order,” she said.
In trying to capture the undecided or change the minds of voters, West may have made a mistake in crafting his response, Ali said. It’s more than twice as long as the charge, maybe longer than some voters will read and the admission of mistakes and apology is in the last sentences.
“The beginning part is like he’s not taking responsibility. Some voters may see that as, ‘He wants it both ways,’ by saying he was slandered and set up as a victim,” the pollster said. “Maybe he should have just gone with that last paragraph.”
West also makes a pitch in his ballot response that he’s been a good mayor, something Ali said could be crucial to surviving the recall: “I have used the office of mayor to help the citizens of Spokane and to move the city in the right direction,” West wrote. “I continue to work for Spokane’s progress.”
But on this key element of the campaign, the poll suggests a slight drop in the way voters view West’s job as mayor.
Just over half of those surveyed said they disapprove of the job he’s done as mayor since taking office in 2004, with 39 percent saying they somewhat disapprove and 12 percent saying they strongly disapprove. Just over a third, or 36 percent, approve of his job performance, and of those 6 percent say they strongly approve.
That’s a slight change from the previous poll conducted for this newspaper and KREM, in which 47 percent said they disapproved of the job the mayor was doing.
An incumbent whose job approval rating drops below 50 percent usually loses a re-election bid unless his opponent’s approval rating is even lower, Ali said. The recall isn’t directly comparable, because West has no opponent.
But that might make turning around public opinion even more difficult because “he’s running against himself, in a sense,” Ali said.
Selling voters on how Spokane has improved also may be difficult, the poll suggests. Asked if they thought Spokane was “a better place to live” than it was two years ago, when West was elected, more than half said they saw no change. Slightly more than one of four voters said they thought Spokane was a better place to live, and 18 percent said it was worse.
Those numbers are slightly better than two years ago when West ran against incumbent John Powers. In that poll, also conducted for The Spokesman-Review by Research 2000, only 22 percent said the city was a better place to live, and 20 percent said it had become worse during Powers’ tenure.
But there’s a down side to the numbers as well. The newspaper regularly asks that question in the fall of years that include municipal elections, and more than half of those surveyed have said they noticed no change in the city. And in each of those years that featured a mayoral election, the incumbent lost.
West’s job approval ratings were slightly worse than the City Council. Slightly more than a third of voters polled – 38 percent – said they approve of the council’s job, while 46 percent disapprove.
As they did in October, pollsters also asked voters to rate the job The Spokesman-Review has done in reporting West’s conduct. They remain evenly split, with 44 percent saying they approve of the job the newspaper has done and 43 percent saying they disapprove.
Last week’s poll also asked a new question about one aspect of the coverage, the newspaper’s use of an adult computer expert who pretended to be a high school senior to confirm reports from other sources that West was contacting young men on the Internet, discussing sex with them and offering them gifts or city positions. The results were almost a toss-up, with 42 percent saying a newspaper “might be justified in using deception on rare occasions if there is no other way to obtain or confirm information,” and 40 percent saying such deception is “never justified.”
Schaffner, who opposes West’s ouster, believes deception is never justified. In years past, The Spokesman-Review would not have used deception and probably wouldn’t even have written these kinds of stories about a public official, he said.
The city worker who supports the recall, however, said she also strongly supports the newspaper’s reporting and thought the newspaper was justified in using deception “when there’s no other way to get this information.”
The split over the newspaper’s reporting confirmed Ali’s theory in October that many voters would probably have felt better if the initial investigation had been done by law enforcement. But some voters who are unhappy with The Spokesman-Review for its deception of West may still be prepared to recall the mayor, he added.
“They may also think, ‘West was deceiving me as a voter,’ ” Ali said.