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Worlds Apart: California’s Partisan Divide and the 2016 Election

Mark Baldassare June 14, 2016

With the June 7 primary behind us, it’s time to reflect on what we have learned about California’s likely voters as we look ahead to the November 8 election.

The December 2015 PPIC Statewide Survey reported a profound schism between Republicans who wanted “new ideas and a different approach” and Democrats who favored “experience and a proven track record” in a presidential candidate. Last Tuesday’s election provided more evidence of these attitudes. Donald Trump, a businessman with no political experience, won the Republican primary while Hillary Clinton, with a long record of public service, won the Democratic primary. It is now obvious that Californians’ candidate preferences are just one example of a deep partisan fissure that has emerged in the 2016 PPIC Statewide Surveys.

We found another example of this divide when we asked about the mood of the California electorate in 2016. Most Republican likely voters (78%) said the state is going in the wrong direction while most Democratic likely voters (67%) said it is going in the right direction in our May PPIC Statewide Survey. We found a similar divide in views about the direction of the US and about whether California and the US are headed into good economic times or bad ones next year.

The job approval ratings of elected officeholders also largely depend on one’s partisan stripes. President Obama has an 84% approval rating among Democratic likely voters and an 85% disapproval rating among Republican likely voters. This party split is also clear in the approval ratings of the US Supreme Court, California US Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Governor Jerry Brown, the California Legislature, and even local House members and state legislators. The only area of consensus is the overwhelming disapproval of the US Congress (84% Republican, 81% Democrat).

There are also large and consistent partisan divides over the role of government. The vast majority of Republicans—83%— want a smaller government with fewer services, while a strong majority—69%—of Democrats say they prefer a bigger government with more services.

Similar partisan differences are evident when Californians are asked about gun laws, government regulation, and economic inequality. While 64% of Republicans say the government goes too far regulating guns, 79% of Democrats say it does not do enough. A majority of Republicans—66%—say government regulation does more harm than good, while 76% of Democrats say government regulation is necessary to protect the public. And 68% of Republicans say the government should not be doing more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, while 79% of Democrats say it should be.

Last but not least is the partisan gulf on immigration and race. There are also different perspectives on the proposal to build a wall along the entire Mexico border (60% Republicans favor; 87% Democrats oppose) and whether immigrants are a burden (66% Republicans) or a benefit (78% Democrats) to California. Most Republican likely voters (58%) say there is equal treatment in the criminal justice system while most Democratic likely voters (80%) say that blacks and minorities do not get equal treatment.

Looking ahead to the November ballot, there are starkly different views on extending a temporary income tax on the wealthy, with 68% of Republicans opposing the extension of this Proposition 30 tax and 80% of Democrats in favor of it. The results are similar when our survey asked about a state school bond (50% Republicans no, 82% Democrats yes) and marijuana legalization (56% Republicans oppose, 69% Democrats favor).

How will California’s partisan divide impact the November election? Democrats now have an 18-point edge over Republicans in voter registration (45% to 27%).The PPIC Statewide Surveys this year also indicate that independent voters are leaning in the same direction as Democratic voters in their presidential, US Senate, and ballot choices, and their overall outlook, approval ratings, and policy preferences. In this context, the May PPIC Statewide Survey found that the state’s likely voters favor the presidential candidate who stands for experience and a proven track record over the presidential candidate who stands for new ideas and a different approach. Still, Republicans overwhelmingly support their party’s standard bearer and appear to be aligned with his perspectives and policies.

California seems poised to maintain its blue status this fall. However, the geo-political segregation of the state —with Republican pockets of strength in California’s northern, inland, and rural regions—means that federal and state legislators will be elected to represent the views of voters who are worlds apart. Indeed, the political polarization and antipathy of this year’s election may result in a California Congressional delegation that will contribute to Washington gridlock and a California Legislature that will struggle to find common ground on solutions to the many challenges facing California’s future.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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