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COVID-related decisions affecting California’s K–12 public schools and the economy have been among the most vexing issues faced by state officials in the past year. Has voter frustration with Governor Newsom over these two key policy arenas fueled the recall effort? Clearly, some Californians have been unhappy with his approach, and this may have aided the push for a recall. The California Secretary of State recently reported that recall proponents have met the signature threshold. But voter discontent with schools and the economy falls short of the majority needed to remove the governor from office—and reflects the hyper-partisanship in this blue state—in the most recent PPIC Statewide Survey.

The disruption of the school year and student learning has been a major issue during the pandemic. When asked about Governor Newsom’s handling of the state’s K–12 public education system, 58% of likely voters say they approve (40% disapprove) in the April PPIC survey. The governor’s K–12 approval rating was higher a year ago in the early days of the pandemic (73% April 2020 PPIC survey) but it was about the same two years ago, just a few months into his tenure (54% April 2019 PPIC Survey). Today, partisan approval differs widely (81% Democrats, 18% Republicans, 55% independents). About half or more approve across age, education, gender, income, regional, and racial/ethnic groups. In a separate question, ratings for his handling of the reopening schools are similar (59% approve, 40% disapprove).

Despite myriad COVID-related challenges to students, teachers, and families, 53% of likely voters say that the state’s K–12 public education system is generally going in the right direction (45% wrong direction). This view was higher a year ago (60% April 2020 PPIC Survey) and lower two years ago (45% April 2019 PPIC Survey). Today, 71% of Democrats, compared to 49% of independents and just 24% of Republicans say the state’s K–12 school system is going in the right direction. About half or more across age, education, gender, income, regional, and racial/ethnic groups hold this positive view.

Positive views are also evident on the economic front. When asked about Governor Newsom’s handling of jobs and the economy, 59% of likely voters say they approve (40% disapprove). The governor’s approval ratings on the economy have been similar throughout the pandemic (59% December 2020 PPIC survey, 59% July 2020 PPIC survey, 57% May 2020 PPIC survey). Today, partisan division runs deep on approval for this issue (84% Democrats, 52% independents, 17% Republicans). About half or more across age, education, gender, income, regional, and racial/ethnic groups approve of Newsom’s handling of the economy.

While the governor’s approval ratings on the economy have held steady for more than a year, this month we see a dramatic uptick in views on the economy itself. When asked about economic conditions in California, 55% of likely voters say they expect good times financially in the next 12 months (43% bad times)—up sharply from less optimistic ratings in the past year (30% December 2020 PPIC Survey, 17% July 2020 PPIC Survey, 21% April 2020 PPIC Survey). Today, 67% of Democrats, 57% of independents, and 31% of Republicans expect good economic times in California during the next 12 months. About half or more hold positive views across age, gender, regional, and racial/ethnic groups. Optimism about the economy rises as income and education levels increase.

In sum, the level of discontent with the governor’s handling of schools and the economy today are in the range of overall disapproval of the governor (42% disapprove, 53% approve) and support for the recall (40% remove him, 56% keep him) in the March PPIC Survey. This is because partisans are deeply divided and highly consistent in their approval ratings and recall support. In addition, voter registration favors one party (46% Democrat, 24% Republican, 24% no party preference). Perceptions of the COVID crisis may also influence Californians’ views about state leaders—voters said it was the top issue for the governor and legislature to work on this year in the January PPIC survey. And today, Californians are feeling more confident that COVID is getting under control—expressing less worry than last year—according to the April PPIC survey.

figure - Deep Partisan Divide in Approval of Governor Newsom's Handling of K-12 Education and Jobs/Economy

If progress containing the virus backslides before the likely fall recall election—placing the reopening of schools and the economy in jeopardy—voters’ approval of the governor and support for keeping him in office could slip. In this hyper-partisan era, voters outside of the major parties are most likely to change their minds about leaders. PPIC will keep a watchful eye on public opinion on leading indicators of political fortunes—including COVID-19, schools, and the economy—in the months ahead.

With the COVID-19 pandemic seeming to recede and a recall election looming, just over half of Californians and likely voters approve of Governor Newsom. This is essentially unchanged from January 2021, though his job approval has fallen about 11 points from its peak last May. PPIC associate survey director and senior fellow Dean Bonner presented these and other findings from the March statewide survey then discussed insights from the report with Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.

Signs are pointing to a recall election for Newsom as officials verify signatures. If the election were held today, four in ten likely voters would remove the governor from office, while 56% would vote to keep him. Bonner highlighted a deep partisan divide on this issue, along with a gender divide: about half of men support recall but two-thirds of women prefer that the governor stay in office.

“This is the first time we asked about the governor’s recall this year,” Baldassare said. In 2003, PPIC surveyed Californians about the recall of Governor Davis four times. “We can rely on that previous work to offer some perspective.” Baldassare provided five key takeaways on the 2021 governor’s recall in a recent blog.

In late February, Governor Newsom signed a $7.6 billion COVID relief package, which overwhelming majorities of Californians support. The relief package sends 5.7 million lower-income Californians a $600 check, and includes $2.1 billion for small businesses and $400 million for subsidized childcare.

While the relief package intends to help Californians hit hardest by the pandemic, adults are feeling less anxiety around the coronavirus. As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more available, a larger share of adults have received or plan to get it. But about 20% of adults remain reluctant. African Americans are among the mostly likely to hesitate, as are Republicans, although the share of African Americans who say they are unlikely to get the vaccine has dropped 26 percentage points since January.

“The number who are hesitant to take the vaccine didn’t change between January and March despite more of a public information campaign around the vaccine, its safety, and its availability,” Baldassare said.

On the federal level, approval of President Biden remains high, and about 70% of California likely voters strongly support Biden’s $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package. Californians are also open to Biden’s immigration reform proposal, with support across party lines for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements. And outside of older Californians, majorities would provide health care to undocumented immigrants, a reform being considered in the state legislature.

Baldassare emphasized a notable shift from 2015—the last time PPIC asked the question about undocumented immigrants and health care. While a partisan divide still exists today, likely voters support health care coverage for undocumented immigrants. “Everybody in California has faced a severe health crisis,” Baldassare said, reflecting on what may be driving the change. “There’s been a different kind of public health action around the pandemic than any of us have ever seen in a lifetime.”

Signature verification is underway in the process to recall Governor Gavin Newsom. It is widely believed that more than enough valid signatures will be found to trigger the second governor’s recall in the state’s history. In the March PPIC Statewide Survey—our first reading on public support for this effort—40% of California likely voters say they would vote yes to remove Newsom as governor. These early numbers are remarkably similar to the 38% who voted against Newsom in November 2018. Here are five key takeaways about public support for the 2021 governor’s recall, based on PPIC surveys:

The partisan divide matters. Partisans are deeply divided when asked if they would vote yes to remove the Democratic governor. Among likely voters, 79% of Republicans would vote yes compared to 15% of Democrats. Fewer than half of independents (42%) would vote yes—consistent with their Democratic leanings. This partisan divide mirrors the findings in California exit polls in the November 2018 election. Democrats currently have a large advantage over Republicans in voter registration, which explains why recall support falls well short of the majority needed to remove the governor.

figure - Partisans are Deeply Divided over the Governor’s Recall

So does Newsom’s standing. Governor Newsom’s approval rating among California likely voters is at 53% in our March survey—similar to 52% in January and 52% in February 2020. Today, 42% disapprove of the way that Newsom is handling his job as governor. How important is Newsom’s approval rating in determining support for the recall? Just 4% of those who approve of Newsom would vote yes to remove him, compared to 87% of those who disapprove of him. While Newsom’s approval rating has fallen from the record-high levels reached after COVID-19 struck, it has remained in positive territory—importantly, he consistently has a solid majority of support among Democratic likely voters.

figure - Newsom Has Consistent Majority Support among Democratic Likely Voters

The president’s coattails help. President Joe Biden’s approval rating among California likely voters currently stands at 60%. In our January and March surveys, solid majorities of California likely voters also say they favor President Biden’s policy direction on climate change, immigration, the economy, and COVID-19. Today, 38% of California likely voters disapprove of President Biden, which is comparable to the 34% who voted for Donald Trump in the November 2020 election. The Democratic president’s high standing appears to have implications for the governor’s recall. Of those who approve of Biden, 11% would vote yes to remove Newsom, compared to 85% of those who disapprove of Biden.

Improvements in pandemic trends do, too. Most California likely voters (47%) named COVID-19 as the top issue for the governor and legislature to work on in 2021, according to our January survey. In our March survey, 79% say the worst of the outbreak is behind us—a big improvement from January (59%). Moreover, 45% now say that the state government is doing an excellent or good job in vaccine distribution—a significant jump in positive perceptions since January (28%)—while 20 percent say a poor job (down from 34%). Californians’ satisfaction with the state’s COVID response—and the pace of reopening of schools and businesses—is likely to determine the fate of the 2021 recall. In sum, pandemic trends will have political impacts as well as social and economic consequences.

2021 is not 2003. The successful recall of the governor in 2003 occurred in a very different political context. Governor Gray Davis had been reelected by a 5-point margin in November 2002 (47% to 42%). Newsom was elected by a 24-point margin in November 2018 (62% to 38%). Democrats had a 9-point edge over Republicans in voter registration (44% to 35%) in 2003; today, they have a 22-point edge (46% to 24%). Moreover, seven in ten California likely voters disapproved of Gray Davis during the year of the recall (72% February 2003; 75% June 2003; 72% July 2003; 72% August 2003; 71% September 2003). And leading up to the recall election, at least half of California likely voters said they would vote to remove Davis as governor (51% June 2003, 50% July 2003; 58% August 2003, 53% September 2003). Ultimately, 55% voted to remove him in October 2003.  By contrast, fewer than half have said they disapprove of Newsom in the 13 surveys we have conducted since he took office, and today four in ten want to remove him.

The political wildcard in the 2021 governor’s recall is the replacement candidates. In 2003, 135 candidates ran to replace Davis and four of them received at least 1% of the vote. But it was the surprise entry of action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger that changed the election’s dynamics. Currently, a few candidates have indicated their desire to run in 2021 but none have the qualities of Arnold Schwarzenegger or the statewide electoral track record of Gavin Newsom. Will a charismatic leader appear who has the name recognition and sufficient resources to mount a successful statewide campaign?

The PPIC survey will be monitoring Californians’ preferences in a year when our state’s system of direct democracy will likely face its next big test—every registered voter receiving a ballot in the mail and being asked to make a choice between keeping the status quo or changing course.

As Californians are learning about their new leader’s team and agenda, most give their support and have high hopes for President Joe Biden.

Biden currently enjoys broad approval in California. In the January PPIC Statewide Survey—which included 1,703 adults and was conducted during the 11 days immediately after the inauguration—70% of Californians approve of the way that Biden is handling his job as president. About six in ten or more across age, education, gender, income, and racial/ethnic groups and regions say they approve of Biden from what they know so far. Indicative of our hyperpartisan times, this includes 89% of Democrats and 65% of independents, but only 24% of Republicans.

Figure - President Biden Has Broad Support across California’s Regions

Biden fares well on top-of-mind concerns. Californians have been saying that COVID-19 is the most important issue facing the state since we began asking about it last spring. Today, 71% of Californians approve of the way that Biden is handling the coronavirus outbreak and, once again, solid majorities support him across demographic groups and regions. The partisan gap on this issue narrows somewhat, with 33 % of Republicans expressing approval, compared to 89% of Democrats and 67% of independents.

Even more impressive are the high hopes for President Biden and Congress, especially because Californians have lately held such pessimistic views of the federal government. With Democrats in control of the executive and both legislative branches, 69% say that President Biden and the US Congress will be able to work together and accomplish a lot in the next year. Solid majorities across regions and demographic groups—and 37% of Republicans, 64% of independents, and 79% of Democrats—hold this view. In our January 2020 survey, just 18% said that President Donald Trump and Congress would be able to work together and accomplish a lot in the next year. The current levels of optimism reverse a downward slide (25% January 2019, 29% January 2018, 50% January 2017) that includes periods when Republicans controlled the executive and both legislative branches.

With Biden in office, Californians are also feeling hopeful about what comes next: 58% have a great deal (28%) or good amount (30%) of confidence that he will make the right decisions for the country’s future. Majorities across age, education, gender, income, and racial/ethnic groups and regions hold this view. Interestingly, Latinos (71%), African Americans (66%), and Asian Americans (60%) are more likely than whites (51%) to express confidence in Biden, while partisans are deeply divided (83% Democrats, 52% independents, 12% Republicans). When President Trump entered office, 28% of Californians expressed a great deal (15%), or good amount (13%) of confidence that he would make the right decisions for the country, according to our January 2017 survey.

Remarkably, in the context of the pandemic, economic recession, political divisions, and amplified concerns about racial injustice that have surfaced in the past year, President Biden begins his term with 52% of Californians saying the US is generally headed in the right direction. Underlying this narrowly positive assessment are deep divisions along party lines (64% Democrats, 43% independents, 24% Republicans) and across racial/ethnic groups (64% Latinos, 54% Asian Americans, 41% whites, 40% African Americans). Still, the view that the US is headed in the right direction is much higher today than it was before the election (33% October 2020) and when President Trump entered office (36% January 2017).

Figure - Half of Californians Think Country Is Headed in Right Direction but Views Vary by Race/Ethnicity

In sum, Californians are in a honeymoon phase with their new leader, and their positive views are buoyed by a majority (58%) saying the worst of COVID-19 is behind us. But Californians are aware of the political challenges in the wake of a contested election, another presidential impeachment, and the Capitol insurrection. Forty-four percent say the country will be able to unite behind Biden, who will accomplish a lot, while 51% say the country will be divided, and it will be hard for Biden to accomplish a lot.

In the coming months, PPIC will be monitoring President Biden’s efforts to address the COVID-19 crisis, related economic recession, and long-standing problems related to climate change, education, health care, immigration, and racial injustice. We will also be closely tracking the relationship between Californians and their government, with a keen interest in learning if current public opinion trends are temporary or the harbinger of a new political era.

The rumblings about a recall of Governor Gavin Newsom that began soon after he entered office in 2019 have gotten louder as California struggles with the COVID-19 crisis, along with related job losses and school closures. Recall efforts have two key steps: gathering enough signatures to qualify for a ballot and holding the recall election itself. Currently, the numbers appear to favor completion of the first step, but they are not close to supporting a successful recall of Governor Newsom.

Recall efforts are not new in California politics. In fact, they have been started for every California governor since 1960. But only one of those 54 efforts gathered enough signatures for an election—and in fall 2003, Democratic Governor Gray Davis was removed from office and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. A recall election this year is in the realm of the possible because the proponents have the money and extra time to collect the needed signatures. But it faces a steep uphill battle to succeed.

At the Public Policy Institute of California, we have been tracking the public’s opinion about California governors since 2000—from Gray Davis to Gavin Newsom. Since 2019, we have asked Californians 12 times about their view of the current governor’s performance. (“Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the way that Gavin Newsom is handling his job as governor of California?”)

In our January survey, Governor Newsom’s approval rating among California likely voters is at 52%, compared to 49% in January 2020 and 43% in January 2019. His approval rating over time hovers around 50%—it surpassed 60% twice after COVID-19 struck.

Figure - Governor Newsom's Job Approval among Likely Voters

It takes a majority vote to remove the governor. Right now, 43% disapprove of Gavin Newsom. For perspective, seven in ten likely voters disapproved of Gray Davis (72% February 2003; 75% June 2003; 72% July 2003; 72% August 2003; 71% September 2003) before 55% voted to remove him in October 2003.

Today, partisans are deeply divided in their approval of Governor Newsom. Among likely voters, seven in 10 Democrats (75%) and almost half of independents (45%) approve, compared to less than two in 10 Republicans (15%). Partisans’ views of the governor have stayed within a narrow range over two years—reflecting the hyperpartisanship, or lack of movement in opinions, that we also observed in the approval ratings of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and Republican President Donald Trump.

Figure - Governor Newsom's Job Approval by Political Party

It’s important to keep in mind that California’s Democratic voters vastly outnumber Republican voters (46% to 24%) and that likely independent voters lean toward the Democratic Party, according to PPIC surveys. Democratic candidates have won every statewide election since 2008—often by wide margins. This includes Newsom’s victory in 2018 (62%) and Biden’s win in 2020 (64%). Combined, numerical advantages and hyperpartisan opinions are powerful political deterrents to removing a Democratic governor in 2021.

But hyperpartisanship also works to the advantage of recall proponents when it comes to gathering the approximately 1.5 million voters’ signatures needed to qualify for a 2021 special election. Eight in 10 of Republican likely voters say they disapprove of Governor Newsom, and there are 5.3 million in California. Nine in ten of the likely voters who said they were voting for Trump also said they disapproved of Governor Newsom in our October PPIC Survey; there were 6 million votes for Trump in November.

In short, the math favors the effort to qualify for the ballot. But the base of Republicans (24%) or Trump voters (34%) falls well short of the majority needed to remove and replace the governor.

Assuming there will be a governor’s recall election in 2021, the political wildcard is the status of COVID-19 in California. In the January PPIC Survey, about half of likely voters say that COVID-19 is the most important issue for the governor and legislature to work on in 2021. Currently, Governor Newsom has mixed reviews for his handling of this issue (50% approve, 47% disapprove). And less than three in ten give the state government an excellent or good rating for its handling of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution. In contrast, seven in ten approve of the way that the pandemic is being handled by Joe Biden in his early days of presidential leadership.

If Californians are satisfied with the COVID-19 response, a recall election may not gain much traction. But if Californians are frustrated, it could set the stage for a recall election that upends the political status quo. PPIC will be monitoring changes in public opinion about the governor, COVID-19, the economy, and re-opening schools—while keeping a watchful eye on the prospects of a special election in 2021.

With the release of California’s official Statement of the Vote all of the November election ballots have been counted. California voters made important decisions amid a pandemic and a recession in an election that will go down in history. These election choices stand out in this remarkable year:

  • Voter turnout. A record-breaking 22,047,448 Californians—87.87% of the 25,090,517 eligible adults—were registered to vote before the general election, according to California’s Secretary of State. The 17,785,151 voters who cast ballots is an all-time high for California elections and, at 80.67% of registered voters and 70.88% of eligible adults, reflects participation rates rarely seen in the past 100 years. This follows the record high for ballots cast in the March state primary. Notably, Governor Newsom directed each county’s elections officials to send vote-by-mail ballots for the November election to all registered voters; 73% of California likely voters said they favored this response to the coronavirus outbreak in the May PPIC survey. Many factors increased political engagement, but the key element was the level of enthusiasm in voting for president—which crossed party lines—that we noted in the October PPIC survey. Still, over 10 million California adults either could not vote, did not register to vote, or did not submit their ballots.
  • Top of the ticket. A big win for Democratic challenger Joe Biden over Republican incumbent Donald Trump was predicted in our October PPIC Survey and widely anticipated by both parties. Biden ended up with more supporters in California—an 11,110,250 vote total (63.5%)—than anyone who has ever run for president. Still, the 6,006,429 California votes for Trump (34.3%) outnumbered the total amassed in any of the 50 states—including Florida and Texas. The vote for Trump also exceeded the percent and number of Republicans registered to vote in California. Both the Republican and Democratic shares of the presidential vote grew from 2016, and minor party support shrank, while Trump’s vote grew by 1,522,619 votes. Trump had low approval ratings in California throughout his presidency, but his base remained loyal. The election map points to Trump majorities in the rural northern and inland areas, while exit polls indicate that Biden was heavily favored among African American, Asian American, and Latino voters.
  • Down-ballot races. Democrats continued to dominate federal and state legislative races while Republicans made some notable gains. Out of the 53 US House seats, Democrats won 42 and Republicans won 11. Republicans now hold four seats that flipped in the “blue wave” 2018 mid-term election. In the 80 state assembly races, 60 Democrats, 19 Republicans, and one no party preference candidate were elected. The Republicans gained one assembly seat. In the 20 state senate races, 17 Democrats and 3 Republicans won seats. Democrats gained two state senate seats, including one that they had lost in a 2018 recall election, to maintain the two-thirds supermajority needed to control the legislative process.
  • State propositions. California voters showed an independent streak and their policy preferences were somewhat at odds with state elected officials in their responses to state ballot measures. Voters rejected Proposition 15, a citizens’ initiative to raise commercial property taxes to fund schools and local governments that was endorsed by many of the state’s Democratic leaders. They also rejected Proposition 16, an initiative placed on the ballot by the state legislature that would have restored affirmative action programs in state government and other public institutions. But they passed Proposition 22, a citizens’ initiative that undid state employment legislation (AB5) and allows app-based transportation and delivery drivers to be contractors. They also passed Proposition 25, which was a referendum initiative that overturned a bail reform law recently passed by the legislature (SB10). Voters also approved Proposition 14, a state bond for stem cell research placed on the ballot as a citizen’s initiative, after rejecting Proposition 13 in March, a state bond for public schools and higher education facilities placed on the ballot by the state legislature.

As we close the books on the November election, the top issues on Californians’ minds in the October PPIC survey—the coronavirus outbreak, jobs and the economy, climate change and wildfires, housing affordability and homelessness, and the state budget—remain far from resolved. The December PPIC survey finds Californians in a gloomy mood about the future. The ability to reach consensus on policy solutions that offer a better future for Californians is the challenge of our times. How the state chooses to build on the high level of political engagement in 2020 will be important. The PPIC Statewide Survey will continue to provide a voice for Californians—including likely voters—as presidential leadership changes and the new Congress and California Legislature take up the people’s business in 2021.

PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

The top two issues on the minds of Californians are COVID-19 and jobs and the economy, according to the latest PPIC statewide survey. Concerns about issues can affect how adults vote—and in what may be the most consequential election in a lifetime, 72% of likely voters are more enthusiastic than usual about voting in November, which is a record high for a PPIC survey.

On October 22, PPIC researcher Rachel Lawler presented findings from the survey, which gauges attitudes and policy preferences of adults around the state. Lawler then discussed insights and takeaways from the report with Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.

Approval ratings for President Trump stand at 35% among California adults. The number has remained fairly consistent since he took office, although more than eight in ten Republicans approve of the president. As the November election approaches, California likely voters prefer the Biden-Harris ticket by 26 points over the Trump-Pence ticket. Partisans overwhelmingly support their candidate in the presidential race as well as prefer their party’s candidate for Congress.

California voters remain divided on upcoming ballot measures, where support for Proposition 15 and Proposition 16 has changed little since September. A slim majority support Prop 15, which changes tax assessment of commercial properties; voters are more likely to vote no on Prop 16, which repeals the ban on affirmative action.

However, with coronavirus still a top concern, many Californians share similar attitudes toward a COVID-19 vaccine. “Efforts to develop and test COVID-19 vaccines are currently underway, and there is a possibility that one or more may be available by the end of the year,” Lawler said. A majority of adults would take a vaccine if one becomes available—but trust diverges sharply along racial and ethnic lines. Asian Americans and whites are more open to taking the vaccine, while Latinos and African Americans express hesitation.

There is less consensus than in past surveys as to the most important issue facing our state. In addition to COVID and the economy, topics like global warming, homelessness, housing availability, the state budget, and wildfires rise to the top for many Californians. “It’s such a remarkable list because it’s been such an unprecedented year,” Mark Baldassare said. The extensive list gives a sense of the scope of the crisis Californians see the state and nation facing today.

Another surprise was the record level of enthusiasm people expressed for voting. “Nearly three out of four and across political parties are enthusiastic about voting,” Baldassare said. “We are anticipating very strong turnout this year, and this will have implications for everything on the ballot.”

This post is based on Mark Baldassare’s introductory remarks for the PPIC Speaker Series event on October 6, 2020.

We would like to offer context from some key findings in the latest PPIC Statewide Survey as we reflect on the state and national election landscape. California’s likely voters are anxious about the troubling state of affairs in the nation and state, while partisans are worlds apart about the path to a brighter future. These are the powerful forces at work today, with profound consequences for the 2020 election and beyond.

First, the coronavirus outbreak continues to be a top-tier issue in California. Six in ten likely voters are either very (26%) or somewhat concerned (33%) that they will get the coronavirus and require hospitalization. Also, we find racial/ethnic disparities and large differences between lower-income and higher income groups. When asked about current restrictions on public activities the coronavirus, just 7 percent of Democrats say there should be fewer restrictions in their area, in contrast to 62 percent of Republicans. Partisans strongly disagree on where the US stands as to the coronavirus outbreak today, with 66 percent of Democratic voters and 20 percent of Republican voters saying the worst is yet to come. The recent news about the president and first lady testing positive for COVID-19, along with the president’s subsequent hospitalization, is likely to raise the stature of this issue.

Second, California voters are in a gloomy mood about the economy. Seven in ten (77%) say that California is currently in a recession. Sixty percent say the US will have bad times economically during the next 12 months. We find stark income and racial/ethnic differences when people are asked if their personal finances are in excellent or good shape today. And Californians have strong disagreements along party lines when asked if government should do more about income inequality (80% Democrats, 20% Republicans).

Third, this year’s wildfire season is breaking records. Eight in ten likely voters say that the threat of wildfires is a problem in their part of California (52% big, 32% somewhat) in the latest PPIC environment survey. Seven in ten Californians believe that global warming has contributed to California’s recent wildfires (69%), including solid majorities across racial/ethnic groups. However, the link between climate change and recent wildfires is considered believable by nine in ten Democrats (91%) but three in ten Republicans (29%).

In this challenging time, Californians vary significantly in their assessments of their federal and state leaders. While three in ten (32%) approve of the way that Donald Trump is handling his job as president, six in ten Californians (60%) approve of the way that Gavin Newsom is handling his job as governor. The hyperpartisanship that defines our current political era is evident in support for the governor (88% Democratic voters, 17% Republican voters) and the president (81% Republican voters, 5% Democratic voters).

As voters ponder their choices in November, the trend in hyperpartisanship is predictably found in the presidential race and local House races. Moreover, Democratic voters and Republican voters have very different levels of support for high-profile ballot measures such as Proposition 15 (split-roll property tax) and Proposition 16 (affirmative action). And in the midst of the national political controversy over mail-in ballots, six in ten Californians express either a great deal (40%) or quite a lot (20%) of confidence in the voting system in California. However, Democratic voters (51% a great deal, 24% quite a lot) and Republican voters (23% a great deal, 13% quite a lot) vary sharply in their confidence, and this extends to whether voting is too easy or too hard.

As we enter the final stretch of the 2020 election, 57 percent are pessimistic and 41 percent are optimistic that Americans of different political views can still come together and work out their differences. In a rare instance of partisan agreement today, majorities of Democrats (55%), Republicans (58%) and independents (61%) are all pessimistic. This skepticism is a reflection of the tumultuous times that we live in.

California seems poised to maintain its blue status this fall. But the geopolitical and racial/ethnic segregation of voters means that federal and state legislators will be elected and propositions will pass that fall short of representing the views of Californians who are worlds apart. The current hyperpartisanship and distrust may result in greater difficulties in finding common ground. But it may also lead voters to move away from the major parties or toward candidates who are willing to build coalitions to solve the challenges to the nation’s and state’s future. The PPIC Survey team will be looking closely at polling and election results for signs of emerging trends.

Californians are highly inclined to tune in to tomorrow’s presidential debate, even though most have made up their minds about the two major party candidates. What does this tell us about California’s political landscape during this highly consequential—and divisive—election?

At this point in the process, Californians are engaged. The latest PPIC Statewide Survey finds that 85% of California likely voters are either very interested (57%) or somewhat interested (28%) in the upcoming debates between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump. This is consistent with the 87% who are either very closely (53%) or somewhat closely (34%) following news about the presidential candidates.

Figure - Most Californians Interested in Upcoming Presidential Debates

But interest in tomorrow’s debate varies significantly across political parties, racial/ethnic groups, and regions. Those who approve of Trump (74%) are far more likely than those who disapprove of him (49%) to say they are very interested. In terms of party registration, Republican likely voters (73%), more often than Democratic voters (54%) and independent voters (54%), say they are very interested. Whites (61%) are more likely than Latinos (51%) and those in other racial/ethnic groups (50%) to share this view. And reflecting regional political profiles, San Francisco Bay Area likely voters (48%) are the least likely to say that they are very interested in the upcoming debate (59% Central Valley, 60% Los Angeles, 63% Inland Empire, 63% Orange/San Diego).

Figure - Supporters of President Trump Are More Likely To Be Very Interested in the Upcoming Debates

Do these differences reflect an “enthusiasm gap” that could affect voter turnout to the advantage of the Republican ticket? Since Trump’s supporters are much more likely than Biden’s supporters to say they are very interested in the presidential debate (73% to 52%), it could be that they are more inclined to turn out to vote. However, supporters of Trump and Biden are equally likely to say they are very closely following the news about the presidential candidates (55% each). More likely, Trump’s supporters are simply very eager to watch a live performance of the incumbent president on the national stage.

Interest in the debate appears to be another sign of the hyperpartisanship that has spread across the nation and our state, in which political views have become static and polarized. Donald Trump’s approval rating among California’s likely voters now stands at 32% (67% disapprove). It has been in the 30s steadily in 23 PPIC surveys conducted since early in 2017. In a pattern found in every one of our surveys since Trump became president, our latest survey finds overwhelming approval of Trump among Republican likely voters (81%), overwhelming disapproval of Trump among Democratic voters (95%), and low approval among independents (33%). Only 2% have no opinion of Trump, mirroring the 2% undecided in the current race. It would be surprising if anything said during the debate tomorrow alters these hardened opinions.

Tuesday’s debate offers the first opportunity to hear from both of the presidential candidates on a host of critical topics. In PPIC surveys this year, Californians’ top-tier issues have included the pandemic, the economy, racial justice, and climate change. A political wildcard has emerged with the recent passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the president’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, and this issue may well provide the most prominent sound bite from tomorrow’s debate.

Along with the majority of California’s likely voters, the PPIC Survey team will be watching the debate with great interest to learn more about the themes, issues, and policy solutions that voters will be hearing about in the final weeks of this consequential election.

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