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Press Release · October 21, 2004

Californians Want Popular Vote – Not Electoral College – To Choose President

Debates Change Few Minds in Presidential Contest; One Year Later: Californians More Likely to Support a Recall

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 21, 2004 — As President Bush and Senator Kerry hustle for the last undecided votes in swing states, California’s neglected voters pine for a change in the electoral process that would make the state more relevant in close campaigns, according to a new survey released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).   

On the eve of what appears to be another nail-biter, 64 percent of all Californians – and 64 percent of the state’s likely voters – say they would support altering the electoral process so that presidents are elected by popular vote rather than electoral college tally.  And on this topic, California partisans find common ground:  Majorities of Democrats (76%), independents (67%), and Republicans (52%) all support the idea. 

Although California is perceived by pundits to be a “safe” state for Democratic presidential candidates, residents here are watching the race with intense interest:  61 percent of likely voters say they are “very closely” following election news, up sharply from September (50%).  Has their scrutiny of the campaigns changed the minds of any voters?  Most (54%) say the recent debates helped them little or not at all in their decision, while 17 percent feel the debates helped a lot and 26 percent say they helped some.    

The Democratic ticket of Senators John Kerry and John Edwards holds a 12-point lead over the ticket of Republican President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney (51% to 39%) – the same as one month ago.  Kerry leads Bush among independent voters (55% to 30%) and Latinos (60% to 31%), while Bush is favored over Kerry by evangelical Christians (60% to 29%) and married people (47% to 43%).

Asked which issue they would most like to hear the candidates address during the remainder of the campaign, likely voters name the economy, jobs, and unemployment (27%), followed by the war in Iraq (16%), health care (10%), and terrorism and homeland security (6%).  California voters prefer Kerry to Bush on jobs and the economy (55% to 38%) and health care (56% to 32%).  Voters narrowly support Kerry over Bush on Iraq (48% to 45%) and choose Bush over Kerry on homeland security (49% to 43%).

California’s Recall Election:  One Year Later

While California may not be the epicenter of presidential campaign activity this year, it did capture the nation’s attention one year ago during the recall of then-Governor Gray Davis.  How do Californians feel about the process today?  Similar to their reaction last October (73%), most residents today (71%) consider the ability to recall elected officials a good thing.  About half say the recall process is in need of major (28%) or minor (24%) reform – however, there has been an 11-point increase from September 2003 in the percentage who believe that the system is okay the way it is.  Californians today are also more likely to support a recall effort in the future:  30 percent say they are more likely to use the recall as a result of recent experience, compared to 18 percent who shared this view just prior to the recall election.  Finally, more residents today say they feel better (33%) rather than worse (23%) about politics in California as a result of the recall election.  

“Californians feel vindicated by the way the recall process ultimately worked and this has only strengthened their support for this check on government power,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare.  “But the reality is that much of the good feeling about the recall today may be the result of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s widespread popularity.” 

Approval Ratings for State, Federal Leaders

One year after Governor Schwarzenegger’s historic election, Californians remain impressed with his performance.  Eight in 10 say the governor has met (41%) or exceeded (40%) their expectations.  Voters are even more likely (46%) than state residents as a whole to describe the governor’s first year in office as better than expected.  Overall, support for the governor remains strong, with 61 percent of Californians approving of the way he is handling his job.  Interestingly, Latinos are far less likely than whites to approve of his performance (36% to 73%). 

Ratings for the state legislature’s performance are far lower than the governor’s and have changed little in recent months (43% approve, 41% disapprove).  However, a majority of Latinos (52%) say they approve of the performance of the legislature.  When it comes to assessing their own member of the state assembly and senate, residents as a whole are more supportive:  49 percent say they approve of the job their local state legislators are doing, while 31 percent disapprove.

At the federal level, 55 percent of Californians disapprove and 42 percent approve of how President Bush is handling his job overall, similar to his September ratings (54% disapprove, 43% approve).  Majorities approve of the job performance of U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (53% approve, 27% disapprove) and Dianne Feinstein (51% approve, 26% disapprove), with likely voters as supportive or more so than state residents generally (Boxer 54%, Feinstein 58%).  However, the percentage of state residents who say Congress as a whole is doing an excellent or good job continues to decline, falling 5 points since February to 27 percent.  Similar to their assessment of their local state legislators, Californians have a rosier view of their local members of Congress, with 39 percent giving their own congressperson positive ratings.   

Political Engagement

Despite the tremendous interest in the presidential election – and the fact that most state residents (69%) believe that having elections makes the government pay attention to what the people think – relatively few Californians are actually involved in political campaigns.  Only 5 percent of state residents and 7 percent of likely voters say they have worked for a political party, candidate, or initiative campaign in the past 12 months.  However, higher percentages of both Californians generally (20%) and likely voters (29%) say they have contributed money to political causes in the past year.

Where do Californians get their news and information about politics?  State residents are more likely to get their political news from television (44%) than from newspapers (20%), radio (12%), or the Internet (9%).  While the percentage of Californians seeking political information on-line has not increased since the last presidential election, more people today receive it via email.  The percentage of state residents who report being contacted by political causes or candidates has grown to 25 percent today, up from 11 percent in 2000. 

Proposition Roundup

Proposition 63 – a ballot measure that would fund expansion of mental health services by raising the personal income tax on those making over $1 million annually by 1 percent – is backed by 62 percent of likely voters, nearly the same level of support found in August (66%).  Support for this measure is driven by the fact that most voters (66%) believe that the current level of state funding for mental health services is inadequate.   

Proposition 71 – a proposal to fund stem cell research in California with a $3 billion state bond issue – is favored by an 11-point margin and is supported by half of likely voters (50% to 39%).  A majority of voters (53%) think the federal government spends too little on medical research involving embryonic stem cells.

Proposition 72 – a referendum on legislation passed last year requiring all large and medium employers in the state to provide health insurance for their employees – remains short of the majority needed to approve the law (41% to 38%) and has lost some ground since September (45% to 34%).  Still, most voters (64%) say it is very important that large and medium employers provide health care benefits for their employees. 

More Key Findings

  • Boxer maintains lead in Senate race — Page 3
    Among likely voters, incumbent U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer has an 18-point lead over Republican challenger Bill Jones (53% to 35%).There has been little change in the race since September (54% to 36%). While 95 percent of voters say they are watching news of the presidential election at least somewhat closely, only 42 percent say the same about the Senate race. However, many voters (54%) report seeing advertisements for this race during the past month, with most (79%) recalling ads for Boxer rather than Jones (11%).
  • Confidence in voting process not overwhelming — Page 13-14
    A slim majority of Californians (51%) express substantial support for the way in which votes are cast and counted in the United States, but nearly half (47%) have only some, very little, or no confidence in the electoral system.  Residents are more likely to prefer to cast their ballot electronically (36%)  than by paper ballot (29%) or punchcards (24%).
  • Residents slightly more pessimistic about state’s direction, economic prospects — Page 21
    Californians are divided about the overall direction of the state (44% right direction, 44% wrong direction) and about the state’s financial outlook for the coming year (42% good times, 43% bad times).  One month ago, 47 percent of state residents thought the state was headed in the right direction and 46 percent saw good financial times ahead. 

About the Survey

The purpose of the PPIC Statewide Survey is to develop an in-depth profile of the social, economic, and political forces affecting California elections and public policy preferences.  Findings of this survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,018 California adult residents interviewed between October 10 and October 17, 2004.  Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish.  The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%.  The sampling error for subgroups is larger.  For more information, see page 19. 

Mark Baldassare is research director at PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy.  He is founder of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has directed since 1998.  His recent book, A California State of Mind:  The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World, is available at 

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy through objective, nonpartisan research on the economic, social, and political issues that affect Californians.  The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.  PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.