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Press Release · September 21, 2003

Distrust Of Government Swells, Support For Recall Subsides

Most Voters Say Upcoming Recall Debates Important; 2004 Preview: More Californians Prefer Democrat to Bush

SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 21, 2003 — While the perception of government waste in Sacramento has sustained voter outrage and propelled trust in government to new lows, fewer Californians now appear to view the recall of Governor Gray Davis as a solution to the problem, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Californians’ trust in their state government is at its lowest level since the statewide survey began in 1998. Today, only 27 percent of state residents say that they trust the government in Sacramento to do what is right just about always or most of the time. Since June 2003 — when a new low of only 34 percent was reached — trust has fallen another 7 percentage points. And the percentage of Californians who say that they never trust state government to do what is right grew from 4 percent in June to 9 percent today.

Why the drop? The budget crisis — and a perception of taxpayer dollars being wasted — has certainly helped fuel distrust. Indeed, 70 percent of Californians — including majorities of Republicans (84%), independents (72%), and Democrats (61%) think that state government could spend less money without reducing services. Among those who hold this view, 67 percent say Sacramento could cut its spending by more than 10 percent without affecting services. In contrast, only one-quarter of residents (27%) say that public schools could spend less without jeopardizing educational quality.

“This is a tremendous challenge for state leaders, who really bank on the public’s faith — or at least their tolerance — during troubled times,” says survey director Mark Baldassare. “But while distrust and anger remain white hot — and a majority still favor the recall of Governor Davis — enthusiasm for the recall effort is cooling a bit. Fewer voters may see the process as a cure for their larger concerns.”

Currently, 53 percent of likely voters say they would vote to remove Davis as governor, down from 58 percent one month ago. Since August, support for keeping Davis in office has increased among Democrats (56% to 65%), independents (32% to 48%), and Latinos (35% to 46%), while Republicans have remained overwhelmingly in favor of recalling him (84% to 86%). Support for the recall has eroded in the San Francisco Bay Area (40% to 35%) and Los Angeles (57% to 48%).

Nearly one in five likely voters (18%) haven’t yet decided on a replacement candidate. Among those voters who have decided, a nearly equal number name Democrat Cruz Bustamante (28%) and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger (26%), while 14 percent prefer Republican Tom McClintock. Since August, support has increased for Bustamante (18% to 28%), McClintock (5% to 14%), and Schwarzenegger (23% to 26%). Bustamante gets his highest support in the Bay Area (37%), Schwarzenegger in Other Southern California (37%), and McClintock in the Central Valley (24%). Latinos now support Bustamante over Schwarzenegger by a margin of 3 to 1 (49% to 15%).

As the campaign proceeds, questions about the recall itself linger. Half of likely voters (49%) say the current effort to oust Governor Davis is an appropriate use of the recall, while 45 percent say it is not. And 58 percent say the recall process needs major (34%) or minor (24%) changes. Most voters (77%) say they are at least somewhat knowledgeable about how the recall process works in California.

Despite the modest decline in support for the recall and some questions about its appropriateness, Californians remain captivated by the campaign. Today, 92 percent of likely voters are very closely (49%) or fairly closely (43%) following news on the recall. What are their sources? Almost half (46%) get most of their information from television — with local news dominating network and cable programs — 26 percent from newspapers, 16 percent from radio, and 8 percent from the Internet. Voters are also hearing from the recall’s key players directly via television advertisements: Although 83 percent report seeing commercials, only 6 percent say the spots were very helpful in deciding how to vote.

Voters to Candidates: Upcoming Debate Key

If advertisements aren’t helpful, can debates fill the gap? As voters seek to learn more about the candidates, the upcoming California Broadcasters Association debate looms large: 67 percent of likely voters say the candidates’ performances in this debate will be very (27%) or somewhat (40%) important in deciding how to vote. Voters evidently hope to get more from the upcoming event than they have from previous debates: Only 35 percent describe those debates as very (9%) or somewhat (26%) helpful.

What are voters most eager to learn from the debates? Half (50%) say that where candidates stand on the issues matters most. And currently, they see the economy and jobs (35%) as the most pressing issues facing California, followed by the state budget and taxes (16%), the recall (13%), and education (11%). Most voters express far less interest in learning about other gubernatorial credentials, including experience (17%), character (15%), and intelligence (11%).

Californians More Optimistic, But Equally Partisan, About National Conditions

Californians are far less pessimistic about where the nation is headed than they are about the state: 51 percent say the United States is going in the wrong direction, but 67 percent see the state heading that way. And more state residents foresee good times financially for the nation than are optimistic about economic prospects in California in the coming year (47% to 32%). Interestingly, such perceptions have a distinctly partisan flavor: 68 percent of Republicans say the nation is going in the right direction, but 82 percent say the state is headed the wrong way. Democrats are more likely to say that the nation (56%) rather than the state (52%) will face bad times financially in the next 12 months.

Approval ratings for President George W. Bush have dropped six points since June and match his current national rating: 51 percent of Californians approve of the way he is handling his job. However, more state residents disapprove than approve of his handling of the economy (52% to 42%) and the federal budget and taxes (51% to 41%). Disapproval ratings for Governor Davis remain higher overall (65%), as well as on the issues of the economy (65%) and the state budget and taxes (70%).

Similar to her ratings in October 2002, 51 percent of Californians — and 57 percent of likely voters — approve of the way Dianne Feinstein is handling her job as U.S. Senator, while 24 percent disapprove and 25 percent are undecided. Forty-one percent of state residents approve of Barbara Boxer’s performance as U.S. Senator, 27 percent disapprove, and 32 percent are undecided. While Senator Boxer’s approval rating has dropped somewhat since last October (48%), her disapproval rating remains the same. Californians have not altered their assessment of their own representative in the U.S. House of Representatives since last year: 39 percent say they are doing an excellent or good job, while 46 percent rate their performance as fair or poor. However, criticism of the U.S. Congress as a whole has grown substantially: 66 percent of Californians rate its performance as either fair or poor, up from 59 percent in October 2002.

2004 Presidential Election Preview

If the 2004 presidential election were held today, 46 percent of state residents say they would vote for the Democratic nominee, and 37 percent say they would vote to re-elect Bush. This gap narrows among likely voters: 45 percent support the Democrat and 40 percent choose Bush. Californians differ from Americans as a whole in their presidential preferences: 48 percent of Americans would vote to re-elect Bush and 40 percent would vote for the Democratic nominee.

At this early stage in the 2004 campaign, no single candidate running in the Democratic presidential primary is the clear favorite. Among the voters likely to vote in the Democratic primary (Democrats and independents who describe themselves as closer to the Democratic Party), Howard Dean receives the highest level of support (21%), followed by Joe Lieberman (12%), and John Kerry (11%). However, 33 percent of likely voters are presently undecided.

Asked to choose who they trust the most — Democrats or Republicans — on three national issues expected to be critical in the 2004 presidential election, Californians tend to prefer Democrats on domestic concerns and Republicans on security issues. State residents say they trust Democrats to do a better job handling health care (53% to 28%) and jobs and the economy (47% to 37%), while Republicans are more trusted when it comes to national security and terrorism (47% to 33%).

More Key Findings

  • Proposition 54 Loses Support — Page 6
    Currently, 38 percent of likely voters favor Proposition 54 — which would prohibit state and local governments from using race, ethnicity, color, and national origin to classify students, employees, or contractors — down from 50 percent in August.
  • Recession Sticks — Page 8
    A majority of Californians (58%) say their region remains mired in an economic recession.
  • Taming the Budget Deficit — Page 11
    Forty-two percent of state residents prefer to resolve the current budget deficit through a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, while 31 percent favor cuts only and 8 percent choose taxes only.

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 2,001 California adult residents interviewed from September 9 to September 17, 2003. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for the 1,501 registered voters is +/- 2.5% and for the 1,033 likely voters is +/- 3%. For more information on survey methodology, 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 most 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.