Commentary

Lessons of 2004 Elections


By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on November 14, 2004

One year after shocking the world with the governor's recall, California elections returned to a predictable course on Nov. 2. The election in this "blue" state went off as scripted by the national pundits and state pollsters, leaving the political journalists here with few surprises to talk about in the wake of the vote tally. This election will be remembered as one in which the voters took a vacation from change, leaving plenty of unfinished business on the table for the governor and the Legislature.

The 2004 election offers this important lesson for the post-recall era: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, although a dominant figure in California today, is irrelevant when it comes to altering the political calculus that favors the Democrats and limits the chances of the GOP in state elections. The GOP ticket lost the presidential race in California by 10 percentage points and 1 million votes and the U.S. Senate race by 20 percentage points and 2 million votes. If it sounds familiar, that's because the top-of-the-ticket races were reruns of the 2000 presidential election and our 2002 U.S. Senate election.

Why didn't this blue state turn red or even a dark shade of purple? Democratic candidates continue to receive solid support from within their own party, and they are favored by the state's one in six independents. They can amass big victory margins in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area and among women and nonwhite voters. A Bush victory lap did not take place here because his national strategy does not apply to the Golden State's demographics: A lot of this blue state was colored red, but this was the pattern in earlier GOP losses. There simply were not enough white males, weekly churchgoers, NASCAR dads or security moms to sway this election to the GOP.

Californians not only sent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer back for a third term in Washington, but they also voted to keep every incumbent who ran for reelection in Congress and the Legislature.

The returnees will include 51 members of our congressional delegation, 10 state senators and 56 members of the Assembly. Moreover, the vacancies in the legislative seats, due to term limits and retirements, will have no impact on the partisan makeup of California's federal representatives and state legislators. After this election, the partisan divide in our state's congressional delegation (33 Democrats, 20 Republicans), state Senate (25 Democrats, 15 Republicans) and Assembly (48 Democrats, 32 Republicans) is identical to what we had before this election.

Why couldn't the GOP shake loose even a few legislative districts? The state's redistricting plan creates uneven contests that assure safe seats for both parties, and there was thus little competition after the parties held their primaries. But the voters can also take credit for the special feat of no partisan change among the 153 seats up for grabs.

Voters told us in pre-election surveys they are unhappy with the Legislature's performance but satisfied with the local officials who are representing them. Apparently, they have lower expectations for what their own representatives are able to accomplish.

What about the "Arnold factor" in the state's elections? Schwarzenegger was elected because he is viewed as a populist and political outsider, and his solid appeal to independents and moderate Democrats is the source of his high approval ratings. The exit polls showed that seven in 10 voters gave the governor glowing reviews, but many then turned around and voted for Kerry for president and Boxer for the U.S. Senate and went with the incumbents or their partisan instincts in the local legislative races. Still, the governor's source of power is his ability to persuade voters to go his way on ballot measures, and that he did again on Election Day. With 16 state propositions at stake, voters sided with him on 10 of the 14 state propositions that he favored or opposed.

We often say that the important decisions are made by voters at the ballot box in California, but this time they chose not to chart any new policy course. While they did pass nine of the 16 propositions, none points to a future direction for our state.

We look first and foremost to six fiscal measures on the ballot, given the state's projected multibillion-dollar budget gap for the foreseeable future. The voters told us they want more of the same. They continue to show support for earmarking state funds and borrowing money for their preferred services, and taxing the wealthy in passing Propositions 1A (local government funding), 61 (hospital bonds), 63 (mental health) and 71 (stem cell bonds). Do they feel the urge to raise new revenues? Apparently not, since they soundly rejected Proposition 67 (medical services) with its 50-cent-a-month tax on their telephone bills, and they were not swayed by the promises of more money for the state's coffers offered by Propositions 68 (gambling expansion) or 70 (tribal gaming).

There is also plenty of evidence that voters' distrust of state officials is still alive and well. Californians expressed this sentiment in support for Proposition 59 (public records) that will make government open to more scrutiny, while their rejection of Proposition 66 (three-strikes limits) points to an unwillingness to give public officials more leeway in criminal sentencing, and the apparent defeat of Proposition 72 (health care coverage) reverses a bill passed by the Legislature.

What lies ahead in the wake of the voters' passage of Proposition 60 (partisan primary) and the defeat of Proposition 62 (open primary)? Apparently, political reforms are a low priority for voters who are convinced their governance system is too badly broken to tinker at the fringes with changing the election rules. Thus, an initiative that would call for independent legislative redistricting may be on the backburner. The governor and the Legislature will have to find another way around gridlock in Sacramento.

Can the governor extend his success to the legislative arena? He has to try, since the next time he can ask the voters to make any decisions at the ballot box - unless he calls a special election -is June 6, 2006. And when they return to their offices, the state's lawmakers will find a host of pressing issues still waiting at their doorstep - a budget gap, school reforms, public health care challenges and the changes proposed in the California Performance Review. It will be crucial for them to focus on long-term issues - planning for roads, schools, water and energy needs of a state that is expecting 10 million more residents in the next 20 years. With a status quo election now behind us, California continues to rush headlong into its uncertain future.

Publications

Recall Election - One Year Later

PPIC Statewide Survey: October 2004

PPIC Statewide Survey: September 2004

The Season of Our Discontent: Voters' Views on California Elections