CA120: Poll shows angry two-thirds back Judge Persky recall

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky. (Photo: Jason Doiy/The Recorder via AP)

Explosions of anger may be the hallmark of this political cycle.  Each party had presidential candidates’ campaigns that were based – at least partly – in anger.  There has been violence at rallies and social media often resembles a verbal war zone.

However, we’re often unsure of how deep the anger goes.

Is it concentrated among activists, or does it exist deeper into the world of average voters who are less engaged with issues?  Is it ephemeral or more lasting?CA Logo

One of these recent California examples was the anger that followed the six-month sentence given by Judge Aaron Persky to Brock Turner, a Stanford University student-athlete convicted of sexual assault.  The outrage over the sentence extended from local Stanford students and residents, to the local and statewide media, all the way to the state Legislature and even to Congress.

More than three-quarters (77%) agree that if the defendant had been African-American or Latino, a tougher sentence would have been handed down.

The challenge in assessing these voices of anger and outrage is determining whether this is a social media and bully-pulpit phenomenon, destined to blow up in cyberspace, but then peter out locally like others in the past. Or is it a substantive issue with strong local support?

A recall election is looming, but that recall is not going to be won or lost based on the number of likes and retweets, speeches given, or how many times the victim’s letter is re-read.  It comes down to the narrow universe of actual voters in Santa Clara County participating in a future, likely low intensity, local election.

To explore this issue further, we conducted a poll of 776 registered voters within the county who would be passing judgement on a recall if it were to qualify for a future ballot.  And, rather than a few loud voices of protest, our poll finds that two-thirds (67%) of Santa Clara County voters support a recall.  Women, and especially younger women, are at the center of the storm with a more than 4-to-1 support. The survey’s cross tabs can be found here.

Our poll found that Persky’s sentence was widely understood by voters and violated their sense of justice:

  • 80% of voters say they’ve seen, read or heard “a lot” about this case and the sentence making for a very informed electorate
  • Four-in-five (81%) describe the sentence as “too lenient”
  • More than three-quarters (77%) agree that if the defendant had been African-American or Latino, a tougher sentence would have been handed down.
  • Most significantly, 63% of voters believe that the Turner sentence demonstrates that Persky cannot be fair in any case, rather than a one-time lapse. This is where we see the strength of a recall – few voters give Persky any benefit of the doubt.

However, there are signs that Persky could possibly survive a recall attempt despite this overwhelming disapproval.  The survey provided both a pro-recall and anti-recall message.

Voters age 55 and older – those who tend to dominate low-turnout off-year elections, which is what this recall would be – are fairly evenly split on this final vote.

The pro-recall message attempted to further the idea that Persky’s sentence violated the public’s trust.

“Judge Persky’s extremely light sentence of Brock Turner is an insult to victims of sexual assault and women, generally and shows that we can no longer trust him to reflect the values of Santa Clara County in his court room.   One of the jurors on the case has spoken out to say the sentence did not fit the crime.  By citing the fact that the victim was drunk at a college party, Persky is blaming the victim for her own assault and minimized the seriousness of a crime that will haunt the victim for the rest of her life.  But because Judge Persky was a student-athlete at Stanford, just like the defendant, he gave this felon a slap on the wrist.”

A follow-up vote found this message only increased support for removing Persky by two points (68%).  This shows that – absent new information about this case – we’re probably at the ceiling of recall support.

Meanwhile the anti-recall message diminished support for a recall to 59%.  It read:

“The fact is, Judge Persky is extremely well regarded and has never been cited for any kind of misconduct in his 12 years in office.  The County parole office, who talked to both Turner and the victim before sentencing, advised a “moderate” sentence to Judge Persky.  Even if you disagree with Judge Persky’s sentence in this one case out of the thousands he has heard over his career, removing a judge over a single, high-profile case sets a very dangerous precedent that will cause judges to pay more attention to public opinion than following the law and their best judgment.”

While this message does try to demonstrate Persky’s fitness to remain on the bench, it pivots away from him and the Turner case.  Making the debate more about philosophical concerns that voters might have with a recall would likely be a stronger tactical path for Persky and his supporters.

Voters age 55 and older – those who tend to dominate low-turnout off-year elections, which is what this recall would be – are fairly evenly split on this final vote.

If Persky’s supporters were able to communicate a message to voters, they could take some of the edge off the anger towards him.  Recall supporters don’t have to worry much about persuasion, but would need to mobilize younger voters to maintain their advantage.

Persky was unopposed for re-election this year and because the law does not permit a recall effort to go forward until the subsequent election, it will be fascinating to see whether the current anger smolders over the course of the election season, then through the holidays and the inauguration of a new president, and whether other  intervening events capture the anger of the electorate.

Ed’s Note: Pollster Jonathan Brown, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly’s CA120 column, is the president of Sextant Strategies. Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., is the founder of CA120. They were assisted by Alan Nigel Yan, an intern from UC Berkeley.


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