By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on September 17, 2006
Rather than embrace the opportunity to decide California's future on Election Day, voters appear poised to make the record books by staying home. Residents who vote Nov. 7 will determine the state's leadership for the next four years and shape the policy landscape through the middle of the 21st century.
When the Public Policy Institute of California Statewide Survey was released a few weeks ago, political observers seized on the news of a 13 percentage-point lead for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over the Democratic challenger, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, and that the four multibillion-dollar state bonds for infrastructure projects enjoyed only narrow majority support.
But this focus missed a more important story -- a surprisingly high level of voter indifference in the upcoming election. Based on PPIC's recent survey and election trends, we may be headed for the lowest turnout ever in a California general election.
The state reached a new low in voter turnout four years ago when 50.6 percent of voters went to the polls. The November 2002 election will be remembered for the nasty tone of the governor's race between incumbent Democrat Gray Davis and Republican challenger Bill Simon. A record $97.8 million was spent, mostly on a barrage of attack ads. This overdose of negativity was credited with turning off voters and squelching turnout. In the end, the Davis victory was short lived and he was recalled in 2003.
Are the signals of the most recent poll pointing to an even lower turnout in the upcoming November election? In the PPIC survey, 64 percent of frequent voters in state elections said they were following news about the governor's election. But only 15 percent of those voters were following the elections "very closely," and 49 percent were watching it "fairly closely."
At a similar juncture in the disappointing campaign between Davis and Simon four years ago, a significantly higher number of voters -- 74 percent -- were following the news about that general election. By comparison, 22 percent followed the news "very closely," and 52 percent followed it "fairly closely."
As they did in 2002, Californians appear to be tuning out election news because they are turned off by the candidates' campaigns. Fewer than half of the voters say they are satisfied with the choice of candidates in the governor's election this year. Three in 10 Republican voters say they are unhappy with the candidates this year -- an improvement from 2002 -- and roughly half of Democrats and independents are not satisfied.
Voters' lack of enthusiasm for the candidates can be traced in part to the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The campaigns of Angelides and State Controller Steve Westly focused on attacking the opponent. While Angelides won that race by a narrow 5-percentage point margin -- 48 percent to 43 percent -- it was apparently a victory that came at a high cost, since only 58 percent of the Democratic voters are supporting him against Schwarzenegger.
About one-third of voters went to the polls in the June primary, another reason to expect low voter turnout in November.
At this stage of the campaign season, every indication is that both candidates will take the low road to the governor's office. Angelides is focusing his political advertising on Schwarzenegger's past ties to an unpopular President Bush in the hope of energizing liberal Democrats. Schwarzenegger is rallying Republican conservatives by emphasizing Angelides' record on taxes.
Meanwhile, the topics voters cite as their top issues in the PPIC poll -- immigration, schools, jobs, state budget and the environment -- are largely ignored. The strategies that the campaigns are employing may rally their bases, but they also are likely to depress overall voter turnout.
What about the power of the ballot initiative to get the voters to the polls on Election Day? This year's ballot offers many important policy matters, but none seem likely to mobilize voters. When asked which state proposition interested them the most, 64 percent could not name one. At the same point in last year's special election -- which had a similar turnout to the November 2002 general election -- more voters were able to name an initiative that they found interesting on the upcoming ballot.
Californians may be suffering from voter fatigue as they trek to the polls for the fifth November in a row. Nonetheless, they will be making a number of critical decisions, such as the fate of the $37 billion infrastructure bond package.
In a state that depends on its citizens to make policy at the ballot box, many Californians appear ready to sit out this election. The outcome may be left to a relatively small group of older, affluent voters who do not reflect the state's diversity.