Commentary

A Not-So-Special Election: Californians Believe In The Issues Behind Schwarzenegger's Ballot Measures. They Just Aren't Fired Up About The Propositions Themselves – Or The Governor Either


By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on October 9, 2005

One month from now, voters will decide the fate of eight initiatives on the special election ballot, including several endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as part of his "Year of Reform." Pundits believe the outcome will have state and national repercussions, not only for the careers of the governor and other state elected officials, but also for the afterlife of policy and campaign reforms.

Yet, voters seem unconvinced of this election's significance. For many Californians, making an extra trip to the ballot box before the next general election in 2006 is about as welcome as going to the dentist ahead of a scheduled appointment. In the Public Policy Institute of California's September survey, most voters described the governor's special election as a "bad idea."

Why are this election and the specific initiatives on the ballot failing to resonate? What seems to stop voters from embracing Schwarzenegger's measures is a sense that partisan warfare is center stage and that political one-upmanship is at the heart of the special election.

As a result, the governor has a major roadblock on the way to passing the fiscal, educational and political reforms he advocates.

All year, he has faced notable opposition to his proposals from the Democrats who control the Legislature and their political allies, including public employee unions. This partisan rift took its toll, most notably in a steep drop in the governor's approval ratings since January: Just four in 10 voters now approve of his job performance. This slide is more evident among Democrats (dropping from 43 percent to 14 percent) and independents (from 60 percent to 32 percent) than among his GOP brethren (from 88 percent to 66 percent).

But a Republican governor can ill afford to alienate most of the voters outside his party, since Democrats and independent voters make up 61 percent of California's electorate. Also eroding Schwarzenegger's base of support is a confidence gap: Only three in 10 Californians say the governor is doing an excellent or good job when it comes to working for their interests, a perception that is shared by just 13 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of independent voters.

In reality, the "replacement" governor who received bipartisan support in the Oct. 7, 2003, recall remains in sync today with voters of all stripes when it comes to diagnosing the state's problems. Many also support his solutions in concept. For instance, most Californians believe that something needs to be done to improve teacher quality in the public schools - the basis of Proposition 74 (teachers' permanent status). Many voters also want to keep the state's budget increases under control - the idea behind Proposition 76 (spending limits). Voters think it's a bad idea for elected officials to be making decisions about legislative boundaries - the subject of Proposition 77 (redistricting).

Nevertheless, voter reactions to his three ballot measures have ranged from strong opposition to outright rejection. In our September survey, Proposition 74 is behind: 43 percent yes, 47 percent no. Democrats oppose it even as Republicans favor it by a 2-to-1 margin. Proposition 76 is losing by 37 percentage points (26 percent yes, 63 percent no), because eight in 10 Democrats are against it, even though most Republicans support it. Proposition 77 is behind by 17 percentage points (33 percent yes, 50 percent no) because two in three Democrats are opposed, despite the fact that Republicans are strongly in favor. Moreover, approval ratings of the governor are closely tied to these ballot choices. Those who disapprove of Schwarzenegger soundly reject these propositions.

Likewise, those who approve of the governor are among the staunchest supporters of his three initiatives. The governor and his campaign team are pinning their hopes on voters getting his message from television ads that began running after our most recent survey, and were cheered by a poll last week that found their measures ahead when voters were read a condensed version of the initiatives rather than the actual ballot language. However, the governor's opponents have been quick to join him on the airwaves and offer their counterarguments to every one of his claims. For the public observing this fall spectacle, it is "déjà vu all over again." Politicians are asking them to take sides in a partisan battle that is yet another painful reminder of the policy gridlock in Sacramento and the dysfunctional relationship between the governor and Legislature.

Now, the governor has upped the political ante by throwing his support behind Proposition 75 (public employee union contributions). This measure was ahead in our August survey because Democratic and Republican voters alike support the idea of limiting campaign spending for both unions and corporations. But the governor's late entry into this battle may serve to highlight the political motives behind it and other initiatives. It could widen the partisan schism between the governor and Legislature.

Meanwhile, the initiative campaigns are under way at a time of mounting concerns about a host of problems not addressed by this special election. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Californians are pessimistic about the direction of the state and national economy. They express worries about the rising price of fuel on the California economy and their pocketbooks. In our recent polls, Californians tell us they now have less confidence in the government's ability to respond to future disasters such as terrorist attacks and major earthquakes. As the governor and Legislature bicker over special election measures, the voters see them as ignoring even bigger problems.

Given all these forces, can the initiative campaigns really be expected to break through the post-Katrina mind set and rise above the partisanship? This is a tall order even for Schwarzenegger and his stellar record at the ballot box. With the governor and Legislature focused on a special election that many voters think is irrelevant, the political significance of the Nov. 8 election may not actually be felt until next year. The issues that are on the ballot - education, political and fiscal reform - will still be around whether the governor's initiatives win or lose. And the politicians who abandoned the bipartisan approach to problem solving may find an electorate that does not treat them so kindly in the 2006 election.

Publications

PPIC Statewide Survey: Special Survey on Californians and the Initiative Process, September 2005

Californians and the Initiative Process

Are There Winners and Losers? Race, Ethnicity, and California's Initiative Process