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
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
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 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.