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Press Release · August 10, 2000

California’s Up For Grabs – Presidential Race Is Nearly Even

Voucher and School Bond Initiatives Lack Majority Support; Public Resents Court’s Role in Initiative Process

Just months after a similar measure was defeated on the primary ballot, Proposition 39 – which would make it possible to approve local school bonds with a 55 percent majority rather than a two-thirds vote – faces an uphill battle in the November election: 55 percent of likely voters now oppose the measure and only 35 percent support it. Even among the 62 percent of voters who believe that their locals schools are underfunded, only 43 percent say they would vote yes. Ironically, voters who give their local schools high marks are more likely to support Prop. 39 than are those who give their schools a failing grade.

Public Anger Over Court Challenges to Initiatives

Most Californians (64%), especially independent voters (70%), are not pleased with the recent Supreme Court ruling against the California open primary initiative passed by the voters in 1996. At the same time, more residents feel that the open primary – which was in effect in the June 1998 and March 2000 primaries – has made no difference in state elections (45%) than see a positive (22%) or negative (22%) effect. However, 71 percent of Californians support passing a state law that would make it possible for independent voters to cast ballots for party candidates in state primaries.

Californians also hold a dim view of the current court challenge to Proposition 208, which passed in 1996 and imposed strict campaign donor limits in the state. Fifty-three percent – including a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters – oppose the challenge. They are also highly suspicious of Proposition 34, a campaign finance initiative placed on the November ballot with the support of the Governor and Legislature. When they learn that donor limits are less strict under this initiative than under Prop. 208, a narrow majority of Californians (50%) say they would oppose Prop. 34. While a majority of Californians (56%) believe that having virtually no limits on campaign contributions in state and legislative elections is a bad thing, most Californians (57%) also oppose the idea of public financing of campaigns, even if it costs taxpayers only a few dollars a year.

Other Key Findings

  • Mexican Elections: Page 21
    Many Californians (51%) are optimistic about recent political changes in Mexico. More Latinos watched the Mexican presidential race very closely (38%) than are very closely following the current U.S. campaign (31%).

  • California-Mexico Relations: Page 22
    Most Californians (88%) believe that political and economic developments in Mexico are very or somewhat important to California. A majority (52%) name immigration as the most important issue between the state and Mexico, followed by drugs (22%) and trade (14%).

  • California Senate Race: Page 6
    Senator Dianne Feinstein maintains her comfortable lead over Republican challenger Congressman Tom Campbell (52% to 33%).

  • Internet Politics: Page 28
    Nearly one-third of likely voters in California (29%) say they often or sometimes visit the Web sites of political candidates, political parties, or political causes.

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. PPIC will conduct large-scale public opinion surveys on a regular basis leading up to the November 2000 election. Findings of the current survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,003 California adult residents interviewed from July 28 to August 4, 2000. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for the 1,597 registered voters is +/- 2.5% and for the 988 likely voters is +/- 3.5%. For additional information on survey methodology, see page 31.

Dr. Mark Baldassare is a senior fellow at PPIC. He is founder and director of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has conducted since 1998. For over two decades, he has directed surveys for the University of California, Irvine, and major news organizations, including the Orange County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, KCAL-TV, and KRON-TV. Dr. Baldassare is the author of numerous books, including California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape (University of California Press, 2000).

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.

SAN FRANCISCO, California, August 10, 2000 – Is California’s political gold slipping through Al Gore’s fingers? As Democrats gather for their convention in Los Angeles, a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reveals a presidential toss-up in this bellwether state. But it’s hard to find any evidence of “Clinton fatigue.” Instead, remarkably engaged voters in California appear eager to cut though the glitter of party conventions to learn the views of today’s candidates on the issues that matter most to them – education, Social Security, and taxes.

Currently, Vice President Gore (40%) and Texas Governor George W. Bush (37%) are running neck-and-neck in California, with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader (8%) attracting significant support. Bush (79%) makes a stronger showing among Republicans than Gore (68%) does among Democrats. Voters outside the two major parties favor Bush over Gore (33% to 23%), although many are supporting Nader (21%) or remain undecided (20%). There is also a sizable gender gap in the presidential race, with men favoring Bush over Gore (43% to 34%) and women choosing Gore over Bush (45% to 32%). Latinos favor Gore by a wide margin (55% to 29%), while more non-Hispanic whites support Bush than Gore (41% to 36%).

“Democrats cannot take California for granted: The conventional wisdom that says the state is solidly Democratic is off the mark,” said PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “California’s Electoral College prize will go to the candidate who connects with voters on the issues. And even at this early stage, the electorate is paying attention.”

Indeed, more than three months before the November election, 85% of the state’s likely voters say they are following news stories about the 2000 presidential race “very closely” (41%) or “fairly closely” (44%). Half of the voters also place at least some importance on the party conventions this summer, although only 17 percent say that the conventions are very important to them in deciding which candidate to support. Interestingly, Latino voters are twice as likely as voters generally to say the conventions are very important in determining their vote.

“Clinton Fatigue” Contained in California

President Clinton is ending his term on a high note – with 61 percent of Californians rating his job performance as excellent or good – but there are undercurrents of disaffection. One in three Republicans gives him an excellent or good rating and fewer Californians give him a poor rating (16%) than at any time in the past two years. Among likely voters in the state, 64 percent give the Clinton Administration at least some credit for the booming economy. However, only one in four gives the Administration “a lot” of credit for the current prosperity. And although most likely voters (62%) say they like Clinton’s policies, a majority (53%) also say they dislike him personally.

While many observers might expect the voters’ ambivalence toward Clinton to rub off on Gore, there is little evidence that this is taking place. As expected, Gore is overwhelmingly the favorite among those who like Clinton and like his policies and who give the Clinton Administration a lot of credit for the state’s economy. However, Gore also holds a wide lead over Bush among those voters who dislike Clinton personally but like his policies (42% to 27%) and those who give the Administration only some credit for the good economic times (45% to 27%).

“Incumbency has its limits in this race,” said Baldassare. “Gore’s inability to maintain momentum in California has less to do with a Clinton effect than with the fact that voters won’t hand this election over on a silver platter. They are not yet convinced that the Vice President is a leader in his own right.” Indeed, among the 72 percent of optimistic California voters who foresee good economic times in the next year, Gore barely leads Bush (41% to 37%).

What Voters Want

A majority of voters say they hope to learn about the candidates’ stands on the issues (54%) from the conventions, rather than their character (20%), experience (15%), or party’s platform (9%). Although candidates have their own campaign priorities, California voters list schools and education (17%), Social Security and Medicare (11%), and tax cuts (10%) as the top issues they want to hear the candidates talk about. Gore is leading Bush among voters most interested in education, Social Security, and health care, while Bush is ahead of Gore among voters who want the candidates to talk about taxes and foreign policy.

A majority of Californians (52%) have serious doubts that Social Security benefits will be available for their retirement, and only one in four younger Californians (ages 18 to 34) is optimistic about Social Security’s future. In fact, state residents are more likely than the nation as a whole (45%) to expect Social Security to fail them. The majority (64%) say they support the idea of allowing individuals to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market. Interestingly, support for this proposal is similar among residents who currently invest in the market and those who do not. In addition, most Californians (65%) believe that strengthening the system should be a higher priority for the next president than cutting taxes.

Despite Voter Concern, Education Initiatives Floundering

Although the state government has focused almost singularly on education issues in the past year, California voters remain unhappy with the state of affairs in California’s schools. Only one in ten voters gives the quality of their local school an “A,” and less than four in 10 give their school an “A” or “B.” However, their concern does not translate into broad support for the two education-related initiatives on the ballot in November.

Voters are evenly divided over Proposition 38, the school vouchers initiative that would provide state payments for students to attend private and religious schools. Forty-five percent would vote for Prop. 38 and 44 percent would oppose it. Interestingly, Latino voters (56%) side with Republican voters (57%) in supporting the initiative. Most voters think that the voucher initiative will affect local school quality if it passes; Slightly more believe schools would improve rather than decline (38% to 31%). By a narrow margin, voters also say they would be more likely rather than less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who endorses Prop. 38 (25% to 19%). Currently, those who support Prop. 38 favor Bush over Gore (50% to 30%), while those who oppose it favor Gore over Bush (51% to 25%).