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
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
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
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.