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Californians’ Views of Political Outsiders

Mark Baldassare December 9, 2015

One of the early surprises in the 2016 presidential election is the strength of polling support for primary candidates who have never held elected office. A recent Pew national survey also found that Americans chose “new ideas and a different approach” by a wide margin over “experience and a proven record” when asked what was more important in a presidential candidate (57% to 36%). What are the political ramifications of this emerging national trend for the 2016 California elections?

Californians have a storied history of choosing political outsiders, electing movie stars Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger as their governors. But in the past five years, career politicians have won by wide margins over political outsiders with business credentials. Voters chose Jerry Brown over Meg Whitman and Barbara Boxer over Carly Fiorina in 2010 and Jerry Brown over Neel Kashkari in 2014.

PPIC’s recent polling does not show a swing toward political outsiders among Californians this year either. When we repeated the Pew survey question in a recent PPIC Statewide Survey, California adults were less likely to say they favor new ideas over experience than their national counterparts (51% to 41%). More importantly, California likely voters are closely divided on new ideas versus experience (46% to 44%).

We also asked our tracking question about which qualification is more important to Californians when voting for statewide elected offices such as governor or US senator: experience in elected office or experience running a business. Today, California likely voters have a slight preference for experience in elected office (49% to 43%). In the past, the electorate has been divided on this issue—for example, during statewide elections in 2010 (44% elected experience, 43% business experience) and 2002 (43% elected experience, 43% business experience), which featured experienced politicians running against business leaders.

In other words, political insiders are more appealing in California today than they were in the state’s past, while the movement toward political outsiders is more limited here than in the nation as a whole. Still, a sizable number of Californians say they prefer political outsiders. Who are they and why might they have this preference? Our polling offers these insights: those who prefer outsiders are more likely to give their elected leaders low job approval ratings, more likely to have negative views of the two-party system, and more likely to be Republican than Democrat.

Majorities of those who prefer new ideas in presidential candidates say they disapprove of President Obama (54%), while majorities who say they favor experience in running a business for gubernatorial and US Senate candidates say they disapprove of Governor Brown (59%). Conversely, solid majorities who chose experience and a proven track record for a presidential candidate say they approve of President Obama (64%), and overwhelming majorities who are looking for experience in elected office for governor and US senator say they approve of Governor Brown (71%).

Negative attitudes toward the two-party system are also part of the profile for those who prefer a political outsider over an experienced officeholder. Just 31 percent of California likely voters say that the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, while 58 percent say that they do such a poor job that a third major party is needed. Majorities across partisan groups today say that a third major party is needed (52% Democrats, 57% Republicans, 69% independents). Solid majorities who prefer new ideas for a presidential candidate (64%) and favor experience running a business for gubernatorial and US Senate candidates (65%) also say that a third major party is needed.

Finally, partisanship is strongly related to preferences for political outsiders. Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to favor new ideas in presidential candidates (61% to 34%) and to favor experience running a business for governor and US senator (71% to 23%). By contrast, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to favor experience and a proven track record in presidential candidates (56% to 33%) and experience in elected office for governor and US senator (72% to 21%). Independents are more divided, with about half favoring new ideas in presidential candidates (48%) and preferring experience in running a business for governor and US senator (47%).

In sum, we do not find fresh evidence of the national movement toward political outsiders among likely voters in California. This is because of the state’s partisan makeup (43% Democrat, 28% Republican) and approval ratings of President Obama (56%) and Governor Brown (54%) that favor the presidential and US Senate candidates with experience in elected office. If these political trends hold steady next year, then Democratic insiders should continue to have the edge over Republican outsiders in statewide elections.

However, we should not discount the importance of the finding that California’s GOP voters are aligned with most Americans in their strong preference for political outsiders. GOP voters will be swayed by the qualifications of presidential candidates who represent “new ideas and a difference approach” and by US Senate candidates who reflect “experience in running a business.” These preferences could have a profound impact on the election choices of GOP voters in California’s presidential and senate primaries.

Finally, the large and growing number of independent voters (i.e., no-party-preference) is a political wildcard in California. Independent voters account for 24 percent of the state’s electorate today. They overwhelmingly believe that a major third party is needed, and about half prefer a presidential candidate who represents new ideas and statewide candidates with experience running a business.

Most independent voters supported Democratic “insiders” in recent statewide elections, but we know from our surveys that their party leanings can shift in a relatively short period of time. In the 2000s, California’s independent voters aligned with GOP voters and supported Republican “outsider” Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor. The ease with which independent voters are able to change partisan and candidate preferences will add uncertainty to next year’s election, and may lead to surprises in 2016.

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