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A Mandate to Fix the Economy

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

This opinion article appeared in the
San Diego Union-Tribune on November 7, 2008



Californians expressed both their hope and despair through their enthusiastic participation in the presidential election. In the months leading up to Election Day, our PPIC Statewide Surveys indicated that Californians remained fixated on election news even while the candidates mostly ignored our state in favor of closer contests.

And no wonder? This was a historic presidential race. Perhaps accordingly, voter registration reached a record high of 17.3 million before the general election, and when all the ballots are counted, turnout is also expected to set a record.

The prime beneficiary of the rebirth of political activism in California this year was unequivocally the Democratic presidential ticket. California voters sent a clear message about their dissatisfaction with the GOP's eight-year tenure in the White House by providing Sen. Barack Obama and running mate Sen. Joseph Biden with a landslide victory over Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin (61 percent to 37 percent).

Exit polls showed the Democratic ticket leading the Republican ticket among men and women, and across all age, income, education and racial/ethnic groups in the state. Although a Democratic win in this solidly blue state was a foregone conclusion, Sen. Obama was the first presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1936, to win more than 60 percent from Californians.

Does the magnitude of the Obama win suggest a mandate for sweeping change? I don't think so: Pre-election polls and even final election results are not proof of a political pendulum swing. Instead, the 2008 presidential election reflects grave economic times, which voters are seeking to remedy by changing the top leadership in Washington.

In the last PPIC Statewide Survey before the election, more than half of California voters said that the economy was the one issue that they most wanted to hear about from the presidential candidates. Fewer than one in 10 named any other issue – including Iraq, health care, immigration and energy.

In the midst of the current global financial crisis, Californians have an increasingly gloomy view of the economic well-being of their state. Seven in 10 say the state is headed in the wrong direction, and similar proportions expect bad times financially over the next 12 months.

Nearly eight in 10 residents think the state is in an economic recession, and half of them define it as a serious one. The economic background for this pessimism is grim: Sharp declines in the stock market, a rise in foreclosures, signs of slowdowns in business and consumer spending, and a job market that is steadily shrinking as unemployment rises.

Given the tough economic climate, Californians are clearly worried – and they have taken little solace in their political leadership. Indeed, approval ratings of President Bush, which have been declining in California for months, reached a new low before the election. Approval ratings of the way that Congress is handling its job are not much better.

Californians also express record-low levels of confidence in the federal government by all three of our measures of trust – to do what is right most of the time, to spend money wisely and to place the public's interest ahead of big interests. In addition, the federal government's actions in dealing with the current financial crisis receive poor reviews – with most voters saying these efforts will not help the California economy.

In pre-election polling, California voters by more than a 2-to-1 margin (59 percent to 24 percent) chose the Democrats over the Republicans as the party that “can bring about the kind of changes that the country needs.” More to the point for the presidential contest, the same PPIC Statewide Survey showed voters choosing Obama over Sen. McCain by a 2-to-1 margin (59 percent to 30 percent) when asked which candidate would do a better job on the economy. Not surprisingly, in light of these trends, voter support was heavily in favor of Obama on Election Day.

But even with such a lopsided vote for Obama, there is no evidence that he had coattails in California. The partisan composition of California's 53-seat House delegation is unchanged (34 Democrats, 19 Republicans), despite Californians' displeasure with the job performance of Congress. With all 80 of California's Assembly members up for re-election, Democrats gained just two seats (50 Democrats, 30 Republicans).

In California's Senate, where half of the members were up for re-election, Democrats gained one seat (26 Democrats, 14 Republicans). After all of their efforts, the Democrats still fall short of the two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes or pass a budget in the state Legislature.

Moreover, the mixed response to the 12 state propositions on the ballot gives no clear indication of political momentum for either major party. By slim margins, voters rejected an effort to impose new abortion restrictions (Proposition 4) while supporting an initiative to eliminate the right to same-sex marriage (Proposition 8).

Voters ignored the advice of the state's Democratic leaders and sided with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in narrowly passing an initiative that placed redistricting in the hands of an independent commission (Proposition 11). The big vote-getters on a crowded ballot seemed unconnected to the pocketbook issues driving voters to the polls: an initiative setting farm animal confinement standards (Proposition 2) and a veterans' bond (Proposition 12).

What can our elected leaders expect from voters in this time of transition? Despite tremendous public support from Californians, the new president can expect a very short honeymoon. If the past decade is any guide, California voters are unlikely to show much tolerance for delays and missteps. Gov. Gray Davis was elected in a landslide in 1998 only to face a historic recall. President Bush saw his sky-high approval ratings in 2001 fall to historic lows.

Closer to home, as legislators go back to Sacramento for a special budget session, this post-election period could provide a time-out from politics as usual and an opportunity for state leaders to focus on the one mandate the voters clearly delivered this year: fix the ailing economy.

Related Publications

California’s 2008 General Election

PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government

The State of California Voters

Related Policy Areas

Political Participation