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Approval Ratings in a Hyper-Partisan Era

Mark Baldassare October 23, 2019
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One of the most surprising findings in our PPIC Statewide Surveys this year has been the consistency of the approval ratings of the California governor and US president during a very eventful year. It’s yet another sign of deep divisions between Republican and Democratic voters—and a split in partisan preferences within the growing ranks of independent (also known as no party preference or NPP) voters in California.

The latest PPIC survey shows Governor Gavin Newsom’s approval rating to be statistically unchanged among California’s likely voters over the course of his first year in office (43% January, 45% March, 47% May, 47% July, 43% September). Despite low unemployment and a multi-billion dollar budget surplus, Newsom’s approval rating is still falling short of 50 percent—even as he has become more widely known.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s approval rating has also held steady in 2019 (36% January, 34% March, 38% May, 38% July, 35% September). Trump’s approval may be low, but it has been rock solid in the wake of numerous controversies and political setbacks, including the current impeachment inquiry.

One of the major contributors to the ceiling on the Democratic governor’s approval rating is his very weak support among Republicans (12% January, 14% March, 13% May, 14% July, 12% September), even while strong majorities of Democrats approve of the job that he is doing (65% January, 68% March, 69% May, 72% July, 68% September).

Similarly, the floor on President Trump’s approval rating is largely explained by overwhelming approval from Republican voters (82% January, 82% March, 84% May, 87% July, 83% September) even while his Democratic support has mostly been in single digits (7% January, 5% March, 8% May, 10% July, 7% September).

Behind these disparate views of two starkly different political figures is a growing inclination to see the world through a highly partisan lens. About seven in ten Republicans now call themselves “strong” Republicans (63% January, 69% March, 72% May, 65% July, 72% September)—up sharply in a decade (55% September 2009). Similarly, about seven in Democrats now say they are “strong” Democrats (69% January, 66% March, 69% May, 60% July, 68% September)—again, much higher than 10 years ago (58% September 2009).

How does hyper-partisanship impact approval ratings? In our latest survey, only 5% of “strong” Republicans approve of the governor, compared to 76% of “strong” Democrats. And 94% of “strong” Republicans approve of the president, compared to just 1% of “strong” Democrats. The “not so strong” Republicans and Democrats give more mixed reviews—but their diminishing ranks means that approval ratings are more polarized and static.

One would expect that the growing number of independent voters—now about a quarter of the California electorate—would be a reliable source of volatility in the governor and president’s approval ratings. But most nonaligned voters are clearly taking sides in the partisan conflict. In our recent survey, we find that most independent likely voters are split fairly evenly between the two parties, with seven in ten saying either that they lean Democrat (36%) or Republican (35%). Of those who lean Republican, 18% approve of the governor while 69% approve of the president. Of those who lean Democratic, 63% approve of the governor while 2% approve of the president.

Most Californians have made up their minds about whom they do and do not trust in government. Many view their federal and state officeholders through party labels rather than ideas and actions. It would take extraordinary circumstances for Governor Newsom to rise much higher in public esteem—or for President Trump to fall much lower.

The emergence of hyper-partisanship has significant implications for California’s democracy. Will California voters be reluctant to cross party lines in the top-two primary in March? Will independent voters continue to side with one of the two major parties or are they open to a third party alternative? Will California’s elected leaders be able to find common ground and bipartisan solutions?

The answers to these questions will have far-reaching impacts on the 2020 election and the future of the state. The PPIC Statewide Survey will continue to track partisanship throughout this highly contentious and consequential time.

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