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Press Release · March 7, 2012

Economy, Financial Worries Weigh on Likely Voters

Slim Majority Backs Brown Tax Plan, Half Favor Water Bond

SAN FRANCISCO, March 7, 2012—California’s likely voters approach the elections this year with big concerns about the economy and the state’s fiscal future, according to a statewide survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), with support from The James Irvine Foundation.

Despite signs of an improving economy, an overwhelming majority of likely voters (84%) believe that the state is in a recession. Nearly half (48%) say the recession is serious. Fewer (36%) say it is moderate or mild, and just 14 percent say the state is not in recession. Most (62%) expect bad economic times in the next year and most (59%) see the state going in the wrong direction.

While a strong majority of likely voters (78%) describe the state budget situation as a big problem, slightly more than half (52%) say they would vote yes on Governor Jerry Brown’s tax initiative when they are read the ballot title and a summary (40% no, 8% undecided). Most Democratic likely voters (71%) would vote yes, most Republicans (65%) would vote no, and independents are more closely divided (49% yes, 41% no). Because this is the first time PPIC has been able to ask about the governor’s proposal using the ballot title and a summary, direct comparison to previous surveys is not possible. However, past surveys found majority support for his plan to temporarily raise taxes (68% January 2012, 60% December 2011).

Among likely voters supporting the initiative, 69 percent say their local government services have been affected a lot by recent state budget cuts. But so do most—61 percent—of those who would vote no.

“A slim majority support Governor Brown’s proposed tax initiative,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “Of those who plan to vote against it, most also say that their local governments have been affected a lot by recent state budget cuts and they would prefer to deal with the budget gap mainly through spending cuts.”

Brown’s overall budget plan calls for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, and 45 percent of likely voters prefer this approach. About a third (34%) prefer that spending cuts mostly be used to fill the budget gap, and 11 percent prefer mostly tax increases.

Brown’s budget proposal calls for automatic spending cuts to K–12 public schools if his tax initiative is rejected in November. Most likely voters (72%) oppose these trigger cuts, a view held across parties (Democrats 83%, independents 71%, Republicans 61%).

The governor’s job approval rating among likely voters is at 46 percent, similar to January (44%). Since taking office in January 2011, his approval rating has changed little, but disapproval has grown (20% January 2011, 38% today). Fewer are undecided about Brown (33% January 2011, 16% today).

By comparison, the legislature’s approval rating remains low, at 21 percent among likely voters. Approval of the legislature has been below 25 percent among this group since April 2008.

Half Support Water Bond, Oppose Building High-speed Rail

In light of constraints on the state budget, two high-profile infrastructure projects are the focus of debate: an $11.1 billion water bond that is on the November ballot, and the planning and construction of a high-speed rail system, which was approved by voters in 2008 (53% to 47%).

While a large majority of likely voters—70 percent—say the water supply in their area is a big problem or somewhat of a problem, there is less agreement on the water bond. Half of likely voters (51%) say they would vote yes (35% no, 14% undecided). Thirty-seven percent say it is very important that voters pass the measure, 32 percent say it is somewhat important, and 23 percent say it is not too important or not at all important.

California has received federal funding for the high-speed rail project, and the governor recently expressed strong support for it. Some have criticized the projected cost of $100 billion. Today, likely voters are more likely to oppose (53%) than support (43%) building a high-speed rail system. Across regions, Californians in the San Francisco Bay Area (57%) and Los Angeles (54%) are in favor, Central Valley residents are split (50% favor, 47% oppose), and those in the Other Southern California region are opposed (52% oppose, 42% favor). At the same time, 53 percent of likely voters say high-speed rail is at least somewhat important for the future quality of life and economic vitality of California.

Term Limits, Cigarette Tax Draw Majority Support

Two ballot initiatives on the June ballot enjoy strong majority support in the early stages of the campaign. Proposition 28 would reduce the amount of time state legislators may serve from 14 years to 12 years and would allow the 12 years of service in one house. The measure has the support of 68 percent of likely voters (24% oppose, 8% undecided). Majorities support it across party, ideological, regional, and demographic groups. Sixty-seven percent of likely voters say the outcome of the vote on this measure is important, and 22 percent say it is very important. Likely voters’ views of Proposition 28 are in keeping with their general perceptions of legislative term limits: 68 percent say they are a good thing for California, while just 11 percent say they are a bad thing.

“Californians have steadfastly believed that legislative term limits are a good thing for California, even as policy experts disagree about their overall impact,” says Baldassare. “Proposition 28 has strong majority support, and most of those who would vote yes on this reform also say that term limits are a good thing.”

Proposition 29 would impose an additional one-dollar tax on each pack of cigarettes and an equivalent tax increase on other tobacco products. The revenues would fund research for cancer and tobacco-related diseases. When read the ballot title and label for this initiative, 67 percent of likely voters would vote yes, 30 percent would vote no, and 3 percent are undecided. The proposition has majority support across political, ideological, regional, and demographic groups. Most (78%) say the outcome of the vote on the measure is important to them, with 41 percent saying it is very important and 37 percent saying it is somewhat important. Most (63%) also say they support the general idea of increasing taxes on the purchase of cigarettes to help pay for state spending.

Romney, Santorum In Tight Race—Obama Leads In Matchup

As the June presidential primary approaches, Republican candidates Mitt Romney (28%) and Rick Santorum (22%) are in a close race—within the margin of error for GOP likely voters. They are followed by Newt Gingrich (17%) and Ron Paul (8%), with 22 percent of Republican likely voters undecided (the PPIC survey was taken before Super Tuesday). Support for Santorum grew 11 points (4% to 15%) between December and January and has grown 7 more points since January.

In a hypothetical matchup for the presidential race, President Barack Obama leads the Republican candidate by 16 points (53% to 37%), with 10 percent undecided.

President Obama’s job approval rating among California likely voters has improved after sinking to a low of 47 percent last September. Today it is at 55 percent, the highest level since April 2010 (56%).

Half Favor A Congress Controlled By Democrats

When it comes to the outcome of congressional elections, half of likely voters (50%) prefer that Congress be controlled by Democrats, while 35 percent prefer Republican control (8% unsure, 7% volunteer they want neither party). A month before the 2006 midterm elections, 55 percent of likely voters preferred Democratic control; they were closely divided in October 2010 (45% Democratic control, 43% Republican control). Today, just 17 percent approve of the way Congress is handling its job (79% disapprove).

Support Grows For Legalizing Same-sex Marriage

A number of social issues are being debated this election year. Californians’ views have undergone a marked shift on one issue: same-sex marriage. Today, 56 percent of likely voters favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry—up from 47 percent in October 2008, just before voters passed Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. Among registered voters, majorities of Democrats (72%) and independents (56%) today favor legalizing same-sex marriage. Most Republicans (61%) are opposed. Support has grown in most political and demographic groups since October 2008. It is up 16 points among Democrats (56% to 72%), 11 points among Republicans (23% to 34%), and is similar among independents (53% to 56%). Support is up 10 points among Latinos (36% to 46%) and 7 points among whites (50% to 57%). Across age groups, support grew 10 points among those age 18–34 (53% to 63%), 13 points among those 55 and older (34% to 47%), and is similar among those age 35–54 (45% to 48%). Among evangelical Christians, support increased 15 points (21% to 36%).

In the context of contentious debate about birth control and abortion at the national level, how do California likely voters view the role of government when it comes to the availability of abortion? A strong majority (76%) say the government should not interfere with access, while 20 percent say more laws should be passed to restrict it. This view holds across registered voter groups (Democrats 83%, Republicans 68%, independents 68%). Across religious groups, 70 percent of Protestants, 55 percent of Catholics, and 54 percent of evangelical Christians say the government should not interfere with access.

The survey asked about several other issues that have been the subject of election-year debate:

  • Immigration: About half of likely voters (51%) say immigrants are a benefit to California because of their hard work and job skills, and 39 percent say they are a burden because they use public services. Asked what should happen to most illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for at least two years, 62 percent would give them a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status, while 31 percent say they should be deported.
  • Health care reform: About half of likely voters (49%) support the changes in the health care system enacted by Congress and the Obama administration, while 44 percent are opposed. Most (65%) oppose the individual mandate, which requires Americans to buy health insurance coverage or pay a fine. Thirty-one percent favor this provision.
  • Government regulation of business: Half of likely voters (50%) say government regulation of business does more harm than good, and 44 percent say it is necessary.
  • Environmental regulation: Do stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy or are they worth the cost? Likely voters are divided (47% to 47%).
  • Gun control: Likely voters are divided about whether the government goes too far in restricting the rights of citizens to own guns (45%) or does not do enough to regulate access to guns (48%).


The PPIC Statewide Survey was conducted with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,001 California adult residents interviewed on landlines and cell phones from February 21–28, 2012. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish according to respondents’ preferences.

The sampling error, taking design effects from weighting into consideration, is ±3.4 percent for all adults, ±3.8 percent for the 1,334 registered voters, ±4.2 percent for the 859 likely voters, and ±7.4 percent for the 281 Republican primary likely voters. For more information on methodology, see page 25.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of 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.

PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, 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.