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The Mood of California Voters and the 2020 Election Cycle

Mark Baldassare October 4, 2019
photo - People Voting in Polling Place

This post is excerpted from my speech at the Sacramento Seminar on October 4, 2019 in San Francisco.

Pollsters often say that a public opinion survey is a snapshot in time. The latest PPIC Statewide Survey was conducted in the days after the California Legislature finished its work in 2019 and while startling news was breaking that the president called a foreign leader for a political favor—which has resulted in the launch of an impeachment inquiry. The mood of California voters in this timely survey—especially their level of unhappiness and anxiety—is noteworthy because of its far-reaching implications for the March primary and the November election.

Let’s start with President Trump’s approval rating, which now stands at 35% among California likely voters. This is unchanged from the last reading in our July survey and has been remarkably stable over time. Today, 83% of Republicans approve of his job performance, compared to just 38% of independents and only 7% of Democrats. Given its partisan makeup, California is a reliably blue state on the Electoral College map. Still, low approval ratings for the president will increase turnout, influence the Democratic presidential primary choice, and affect all of the legislative races next year.

Meanwhile, approval ratings for Congress remain low even in the wake of Democratic control of the US House of Representatives. Today, just 24% of California likely voters approve of the way that Congress is doing its job. This is unchanged from the start of the year—as well as from a year ago when Republicans controlled the House. In California, likely voters across party lines give low approval ratings to Congress. If this trend continues, incumbents will have to work harder to keep their seats in 2020.

Closer to home, Governor Newsom and the legislature are getting mixed reviews in their first year of making policy together. Among likely voters, 43% approve and 44% disapprove of the governor, while 38% approve and 51% disapprove of the legislature. Since the beginning of the year, disapproval has increased significantly for the governor (+15 points) and the legislature (+8 points). Today, more than six in ten Democrats approve of the job that the governor and legislature are doing, compared to fewer than four in ten independents, and less than two in ten Republicans. If their ratings remain in the doldrums, the governor and legislators will have little sway over Californians’ ballot choices next year.

figure - Approval Ratings of State Elected Officials

Equally important, California’s likely voters are in a negative frame of mind about the state of their state—even in the midst of low unemployment and budget surpluses. Fifty-four percent say that things in California are going in the wrong direction (41% say right direction). When asked about economic conditions in California for the next 12 months, a similar 54% expect bad times (37% say good times). Pluralities across party lines are now expecting bad economic times in the next 12 months—a timeframe that includes most of the 2020 election campaign season.

figure - Likely Voters Expect Bad Economic Times in the Next 12 Months

State bonds and tax measures will face headwinds if this level of economic unease continues. This is already evident in the modest support for the $15 billion school bond (54%) and the split-roll property tax initiative (47%) in our recent survey.

figure - Modest Support for Likely 2020 State Ballot Measures

Digging deeper into the survey, more than six in 10 likely voters worry about being able to afford the cost of their health care, six in ten are concerned about the threat of a mass shooting where they live, half are worried about experiencing natural disasters such as wildfires, and four in ten worry about someone they know being deported. Candidates’ promises and plans to address these fears will likely impact the standing of current frontrunners Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—and their challengers—in a Democratic presidential primary which is very much up for grabs, as our recent survey shows.

How will voters’ views change over the next 12 months? Clearly, the political wildcard is the impeachment inquiry and how it will impact perceptions of the president, Congress, and the major parties. Uncertainty about the economy is another unknown factor. In the short run, the impeachment inquiry is likely to increase polarization, lead to more political gridlock in Washington, and heighten expectations for the governor and legislature to do more to solve the problems facing California.

PPIC Statewide Surveys will continue to monitor the broader political and economic attitudes, as well as voters’ preferences for presidential candidates and ballot measures, throughout what will be a consequential 2020 election.

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