Commentary

Voters in an Unhappy State - California


By Mark Baldassare, president and CEO,
Public Policy Institute of California

This opinion article appeared in the
San Francisco Chronicle on September 7, 2008

 

 

In a presidential election year that has been full of surprises, more could be in store. Just a year ago, it looked like Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton had a lock on their party nominations, but the voters relegated them to the supporting cast. Now, the unpredictable mix of "change" and "experience" on both the John McCain-Sarah Palin and Barack Obama-Joe Biden tickets hits the campaign trail in what appears to be a tight presidential race. Closer to home, will California voters dish out any surprises?

Californians enter this campaign season in an unusually unhappy state. In the latest Public Policy Institute of California Statewide Survey, about 7 in 10 likely voters expect bad economic times, see the state and nation going in the wrong direction, and disapprove of the job that the president, Congress and the state Legislature are doing. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fares best among elected officials, but even so, more than half - 52 percent - disapprove of his performance.

Voter frustration - about immigration and Iraq at the national level, and on health care and the budget at the state level - has taken a toll. Californians appear ready to express themselves at the ballot box. A record 9.1 million voted in the February presidential primary. Voter registration has increased and at last count was 16.1 million. In our recent survey, 88 percent of likely voters said they were closely following the news about the presidential candidates. All indications point to a record number of voters in November, but what is the likely outlet for this mix of political despair and voter enthusiasm?

An upset in the presidential race is a long shot in this blue state. A Republican presidential candidate hasn't won in California since George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988. Democrats have an 11-point edge over Republicans in voter registration. For the McCain-Palin ticket to win, they need the support of most independents. But in our latest PPIC Statewide Survey, about half of independent voters say they are for Obama.

Californians who want to express their political frustration with the governor will have to wait until 2010. Likewise, our two U.S. senators have a pass this year - they face voters in 2010 and 2012. And the 100 state legislative elections are unlikely to generate much interest, because most of California's legislative districts are uncompetitive. This leaves the state propositions as the most likely outlet for voters' frustration.

The November ballot features 12 diverse measures, but will any galvanize voters as Proposition 13 did 30 years ago, when it ignited a nationwide taxpayer revolt? This year, a potential rallying point is Proposition 11, a redistricting initiative that would take the power to draw the state Legislature's districts away from legislators and give it to a citizen commission. Prop. 11 gives voters a direct way to vent dissatisfaction with the Legislature, but our latest survey shows that it has not captured voters' attention. Many don't know how they'll vote on it, and those who have decided are divided.

Absent from this year's ballot is a comprehensive, bipartisan measure from the governor and Legislature that addresses California's long-term fiscal issues - and responds to voter worries about the direction of the state. As post-partisanship gives way to hyper-partisanship in national politics, California voters would welcome a bipartisan approach to end the annual stalemates over the state budget. But with no progress on the fiscal issues important to the state's future and no opportunity to weigh in on reforms that would truly change the status quo, California voters' desire for change is likely to persist and play out in unpredictable ways, no matter what happens in November.

Related Publications

PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government

The State of California Voters

California's Partisan Divide

California's Likely Voters

Related Policy Areas

Government
Political Participation