Commentary

What’s Next For Governor?


By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on February 6, 2005

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has staked his fledgling political career on his faith that voters will support his ideas at the ballot box. Whether the Legislature acts on his wishes or not, he is committed to taking a series of educational, fiscal, pension and political reforms to the voters in a special election later this year. If the recent past is any guide, he has good reason to believe that the people will follow his lead.

But can he count on their support this time around? Much will depend on his ability to use his popularity to convince a broad base of voters to support his proposals - an act he has mastered, but one that may already be wearing thin.

For starters, voting fatigue may be setting in for an electorate that has already trekked to the polls five times since 2002. When asked in our recent PPIC survey of 2,002 California adults, half said they would rather wait until the June 2006 primary to vote on the governor's latest package of reforms. Sticker shock adds to the resistance to a special election: Only one in four voters thought a 2005 election was a good idea when they heard the price tag would be in the $50 million to $70 million range.

While most Republicans side with the GOP governor's call to action, Democrats lack a sense of urgency about the Schwarzenegger reforms this year. The emergent partisan split over the special election - 62 percent of Democrats would rather wait until 2006, while 58 percent of Republicans want a vote later this year - raises a fundamental question about whether the governor can still count on enough voters outside his party to win at the ballot box.

After all, California is still solidly a "blue state," where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 8 points (43 percent to 35 percent) and a 1.3 million-voter registration edge.

Schwarzenegger's previous successes rested on his ability to bring these Democratic voters to his side. But today, Democrats question his approach on the issues they consider the most important: schools and the state budget.

Democrats are uncomfortable with the governor's budget plan now that the chronic gap between spending and revenues has changed from an inherited deficit to the current administration's problem.

When asked about the January budget proposal, three in four Democrats were dissatisfied, and two in three thought that Schwarzenegger should have bitten the bullet and raised taxes.

How much support has Schwarzenegger lost outside his party? The governor continues to be far more popular than the Democrat-controlled Legislature - 63 percent of Californians approve of him while 57 percent disapprove of them. Nonetheless, two in three Democrats now say they would prefer to see Democrats in the Legislature, not the governor, make the tough choices on the current state budget. While GOP voters remain faithful to the governor's fiscal approach, Democrats are more critical of the governor today than a year ago.

The governor's decision to withhold spending owed to schools by state formula - even though spending will increase this year - may also have cost him dearly among Democrats. Three in four say they would like to see schools receive more money despite the budget gap.

How would they pay for it? Eight in 10 Democrats favor raising the income taxes paid by the wealthiest Californians. The result of this difference in priorities and approach? The governor's disapproval ratings are now at 53 percent among voters when it comes to his handling of education issues - a telling sign of political vulnerability given the importance of this issue for Californians.

Moreover, the governor's package of reform proposals received a mixed and highly partisan response in the early going. His plan to put the political redistricting process in the hands of an independent panel is favored by six points among likely voters (46 percent to 40 percent), but two in three Democrats say they would vote against it. His proposals to enact a state spending limit and change public employee pensions to 401(k)-type plans are favored by six in 10 likely voters. But although these fiscal reforms are overwhelmingly popular among Republicans, they have only tepid support among Democratic voters.

The fact that Democrats appear to be cooling to his ideas is a new and troubling development for the governor. His first foray into statewide politics was the Before and After School Programs Initiative (Proposition 49) on the November 2002 ballot, where he won a big victory - 57 percent to 43 percent - because two in three Democratic voters supported him. His second experience with state ballot measures was in March 2004, when Schwarzenegger persuaded a skeptical electorate to support his twin fiscal reforms (Propositions 57, 58) through a high-profile bipartisan campaign featuring some of the state's leading Democrats. The result was overwhelming support for Proposition 57, a $15 billion bond measure for the state, (63 percent to 37 percent) and Proposition 58, a state spending cap and rainy-day fund, (71 percent to 29 percent), again because two in three Democrats sided with the governor.

Would Democrats have followed his ballot recommendations last March without coaxing from their party's elected officials? More importantly for the current situation, would they go against party leaders who told them to vote against the ballot measures that Schwarzenegger placed on the ballot? The governor is taking this gamble as he plans for another round of ballot measures this year.

It should also be noted that Schwarzenegger's recent ventures into the world of partisan politics have not been altogether successful. In November, his support of President Bush may have moved swing voters in Ohio, but California voters supported John Kerry by a 1.2 million margin. In that same election, he endorsed the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate who lost by 2.4 million votes to Barbara Boxer. His campaign stops for GOP legislators may have drawn curious crowds anxious for a glimpse of California's most famous movie star, but these activities did not change the election outcome in one legislative district or alter the partisan makeup of the state senate or state assembly.

If Schwarzenegger hopes to win at the ballot box, he will have to find some allies among the Democrats who still hold the cards in statewide elections. If he fails to persuade enough non-GOP voters to side with him later this year, he could end up solidifying the legislative gridlock he is trying to break. Both sides should turn down the rhetoric and recognize that what is ultimately at stake in California is a historic chance to restore public confidence in a state government that remains in the doldrums.

Publications

PPIC Statewide Survey: Special Survey on the California State Budget, January 2005

Just the Facts: California's 2004 Election

Just the Facts: California's State Budget