LOS ANGELES — Laurie Benton says she has never been so aggressively glad-handed, back-slapped, and chatted up by perfect strangers in her whole life.
"I've gotten mailings from five candidates," says the San Fernando Valley homemaker, "fliers on two citizen's initiatives, driving directions to the nearest voting booths, and two guides on how to vote absentee."
Ms. Benton is part of a growing group of Californians - newly registered voters with no party affiliation - who are making it all but impossible to forecast how next week's gubernatorial recall vote will turn out.
In addition to large numbers of first-time or independent voters, the recall process is highly unusual: The campaign time frame is compressed and no other offices are at stake. But two hot-button ballot initiatives are. Together, it's enough to twist pollsters and party strategists into pretzels trying to gauge how the candidates stack up. The first new poll since the major debate last week, for instance, seems to show a big advance for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Fully two-thirds of likely voters will opt for the ouster of Gov. Gray Davis (D), according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. On the question of who should replace the governor, Mr. Schwarzenegger leads at 40 percent of likely voters, with 25 percent preferring Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) and 18 percent Tom McClintock (R).
Yet these results differ sharply from previous polls by other organizations. How much is due to a post-debate surge for the Republican actor, and how much relates to differing methodologies? The poll drew fire Monday from Davis backers, who in some other recent polls have appeared to be within striking distance of saving the governor's job.
Pollsters themselves say there's no easy answer. Only the final ballot itself will tell.
"The country needs to understand that this election is truly unprecedented in terms of trying to guess which people will come to vote," says Susan Pinkus, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll. "Usually we look to past elections to figure out which voters will come and which candidates they like," says Ms. Pinkus. "This election has so many variables and quirks [that] the pollsters and pundits are likely to be way off the mark."
The state's 2.2 million independents (out of 14.2 million registered voters) are one key unknown in the ballot. There are now more registered voters for the recall than there were for the previous gubernatorial election. Most of some 260,000 newly registered voters claim no party affiliation. "The number of brand-new voters and the growing phenomenon of Independent voters is spotlighting the bizarre ending to this most unusual election," says Elizabeth Garrett, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "The whole electorate is being energized either by the recall or their favorite candidate, but nobody seems to know who the new voters are or exactly how to go about attracting them."
Because California's recall is a specially called election, coinciding with no regularly scheduled vote on other candidates, no one has a clue as to which voters will show up to vote. Some pollsters wonder aloud if the recall could produce a surprise winner in the same way that Jesse Ventura came out of "nowhere" to win the governorship of Minnesota.
Besides just two months of campaigning and 135 candidates, the motivations for voters are more confused and varied. Some will go to the polls with the intent of throwing one man out of office in favor of an alternative candidate. A few will come to vote on Proposition 54, an initiative that would prevent state entities from sorting people by race on job applications. Others will be drawn to vote by the prospect of potentially producing the first Latino governor in 100 years.
"The giant, unknown, 'X factor' of this election is who will be most motivated to come to the polls," says Joe Cerrell, a veteran Democratic strategist now an independent consultant.
Another mystery factor: absentee voters. Some 900,000 absentee ballots have been sent in already - many of them were cast before the recent TV debate that seems to have added momentum to Schwarzenegger's bid.
Because the race is so close, and seems to be tightening further into its last week, even small shifts in voter turnout can have outcome-altering effects.
Davis's fate could hinge on a decision by conservative Republican Tom McClintock to either stay in the race or quit campaigning. McClintock's campaign manager noted over the weekend that Schwarzenegger's lead may be unassailable. If McClintock officially concedes, some GOP analysts say 8 percent of Republican voters will be so turned off by the idea of the moderate Schwarzenegger as governor that they will not go to the polls at all. That would mean fewer votes for 'yes' on the recall - a boost for Davis.
Another question is which ethnic groups are most motivated to vote. A new poll by the Pew Hispanic Center shows how close poll preferences are in some respects and far apart in others. Should the recall succeed, Latinos (57 percent) were more than twice as likely as whites (22 percent) or Asian-Americans (25 percent) to say they will vote for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and more than three times as likely as African-Americans (17 percent).
With all this as a backdrop, campaign spokesman say they are trying to identify voters who could potentially vote for their candidate, and get them to the polls. In the last gubernatorial election the turnout was just over 50 percent of registered voters. Because this is such a high-profile election, but is being held in an off year, several analysts predict about 60 percent turnout.
"We feel our biggest message is to not stay home and let your feelings go uncounted," says Bob Mulholland, strategist for the state Democratic Party. "If we can just get more California voters out, period, we feel more will vote Democratic at the end of the day, because more are Democrats to begin with."
Others aren't so sure the turnout will be so impressive. But all campaigns are out to find fence-sitters such as Laurie Benton.
"We are using all the volunteers we can ... and hit them with mail, phone calls, and whatever else we've got," says Schwarzenegger spokesman Todd Harris.