Commentary

Take Care Not To Trip On Path To Special Election


By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on May 15, 2005

The governor faces a critical choice as he readies for confrontation with the Legislature over the budget and reform plans. His efforts to promote his agenda through a special election this year have so far failed to generate much enthusiasm among voters and have had the unintended effect of galvanizing his political opponents.

In tying his political future to a special election, he plays a risky game of legislating by initiative - a gamble that has not always paid off for previous governors. The lessons offered by two of his role models, Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson, show that a governor must tread carefully on the path toward a special election.

If the governor follows through with calling the special election, he will have an opportunity to reclaim the mantle of California's change agent for the 21st century. But, as his predecessors have learned, a special election focused around initiatives can take on a life of its own. There are just too many elements out of the governor's control.

In reality, Schwarzenegger's falling popularity has greatly diminished his threat to go to the ballot box if the Legislature fails to support his budget and reform agenda. The Public Policy Institute of California's most recent Statewide Survey showed a 20-point drop in the governor's approval ratings, from 60 percent in January to 40 percent in April. Beneath those numbers are even more troubling trends for the GOP governor of a "blue" state. Because Democrats outnumber Republicans (43 percent to 35 percent), the political survival of GOP state officeholders depends on having most Republicans on their side and a solid base of voter support outside their party. From his surprise election in October 2003 through last January, Schwarzenegger had that successful formula in place. But he has suddenly fallen out of favor with the key voter groups he needs to win approval of his budget and reform measures in a special election this fall, not to mention re-election next year.

Today, Schwarzenegger is still very popular among Republicans and conservatives who form the core of his political base. However, among "swing" voters - independents and moderates - his approval has dropped below 50 percent. Meanwhile, two out of three Democrats and liberals now say they disapprove of the governor's actions in office. His recent statements about citizen patrols on the U.S.-Mexico border have probably not helped his relations with Latino voters, of whom just one in four say they approve of the governor.

So what happened?

Voters have become much more nervous about the direction of the state under Schwarzenegger's leadership. This sentiment surfaced after the governor revealed his plans to withhold some school funding in the state budget and hold a special election to reform budget, legislative, school and public pension systems. In response, the governor's opponents spent vast sums on political advertising to convince voters that he was out of touch. At least for now, they have succeeded.

Many voters who saw Schwarzenegger as their populist crusader have changed their minds. First, the public pension reform was dropped because the ballot wording included a controversial statement about ending death and disability benefits for public employees such as police and firefighters.

Next, the signature-gathering effort for teacher merit pay fell short. This measure will not be part of the ballot. Now, the sole school-reform measure headed for the special election - extending the time of teacher tenure decisions from two to five years - has a smaller base of support than teacher merit pay, according to our most recent survey.

The governor remains committed to two other ballot measures he hopes will carry the day and reinvigorate his agenda - state spending limits and independent legislative redistricting. But whether they will help him regain his popularity remains to be seen.

Both initiatives have less than majority support in our surveys, with voters deeply divided along partisan lines.

To succeed with this assortment of ballot measures in November, the governor will have to make a convincing case that the initiatives will fix what's broken in the state's budget, schools and legislative system. And, in each instance, the governor is certain to attract powerful groups that will fund opposition campaigns to defeat the initiatives.

Another more unsettling possibility for the governor is that the special election will be hijacked by his political opponents and other interest groups. Democratic legislators and their allies have moved to place consumer measures on the ballot such as prescription drug discounts and energy re-regulation. Other measures headed for the ballot may include parental notification on abortion and limits on political contributions by public employee unions. Such initiatives could steal the thunder from the governor's reform agenda by mobilizing groups to raise money to pass or defeat these measures. And when the governor is asked to take stands on such controversial initiatives, his positions could alienate the voters he needs to pass his own package of reforms.

Even more uncertainty revolves around a special election itself.

California has seen four statewide special elections - 1973, 1979, 1993 and 2003. With the exception of the 2003 recall, voter turnout has been below 50 percent. If the governor is banking on his steadfast supporters in a special election, it may take some convincing to get them out to vote. Instead, voters drawn to the special election by other ballot issues may decide the fate of Schwarzenegger's reforms.

Schwarzenegger has often taken his political cues from two GOP predecessors, Reagan and Wilson. Both tried to pass their legislative agendas through special elections, with different approaches and varying outcomes. In 1973, Reagan called a special election on a spending and tax-limiting initiative as an end run around the Legislature; it lost by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. Twenty years later, in 1993, Wilson called a special election on a measure to extend the state sales tax to help pay for public safety; it passed by 58 percent to 42 percent.

The difference between winning and losing in a special election? The less-than-charismatic Wilson reached out and lined up bipartisan support ahead of the election, while the renowned communicator Reagan was unable to overcome the opposition of Democratic legislators and their allies.

Schwarzenegger should take a lesson from history. Whether in the legislative arena or through initiatives in a special election, his best chance for making 2005 a year of reform and boosting his sagging poll numbers is to reach a bipartisan consensus with legislators on his budget and reform plans. Otherwise, the potential for either Pyrrhic victories or embarrassing defeats at the ballot box will loom large.

Publications

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

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

Just the Facts: Californians and the Initiative Process