SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 22, 2002 – Will the candidates ever learn? California voters continue to clamor for a substantive discussion of education and other important issues facing the state, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). While they give the self-mandated “education governor” some credit for recent progress, residents still see much room for improvement in the state’s schools.
Among likely voters, Governor Gray Davis leads Republican challenger Bill Simon by 10 points (41% to 31%), with no third-party candidate receiving more than 4 percent of the vote. The race has changed little since September, when Davis led Simon 40 percent to 32 percent. Davis continues to receive strong support from Latinos, women, and independent voters. He leads Simon in the San Francisco Bay Area (50% to 19%) and Los Angeles (47% to 25%), while Simon is ahead in the other Southern California counties (41% to 34%) and the Central Valley (41% to 33%).
Voters remain more engaged in the campaign today than they were four years ago: 75 percent are closely following news about the candidates compared to 67 percent in October 1998. But despite their attentiveness, voters continue to be unsatisfied with the choice of candidates for governor (57%) and with the amount of attention the candidates are paying to the issues that matter to them (66%). Did the debate make a dent? Fifty-nine percent of voters say the single debate between major-party candidates helped them little or not at all in deciding who to support in the governor’s race, while 21 percent were unaware that a debate took place.
As in September, likely voters continue to prefer Davis over Simon on education (53% to 29%), the state budget and taxes (43% to 39%), and maintaining high ethical standards in government (41% to 29%). They are split over which candidate would do a better job on the economy, preferring Davis slightly (42% to 39%), and select Simon over Davis on electricity and energy policy (42% to 36%).
“Voters are deciding the election based on their read of the issues rather than sensational revelations or rumors,” says survey director Mark Baldassare. “Right now, a majority prefer Davis over Simon on their top issue – education. This fact goes a long way toward explaining the overall standings.”
Education: Bringing the Candidates Back to Basics
When asked which one issue they would most like to hear the candidates for governor talk about during the campaign, voters name education (21%), followed by jobs and the economy (14%), the state budget (7%), taxes (7%), and electricity (6%). Schools are the top concern across all regions of the state, political parties, and racial and ethnic groups. Indeed, 54 percent of likely voters rate the quality of public schools as a big problem today. Among California residents generally, 85 percent say that the quality of K-12 public schools is a big problem (48%) or somewhat of a problem (37%). These numbers have changed little since May 1998.
Many Californians also remain discontented with the handling of recent educational reforms. More residents are dissatisfied than satisfied with school spending (57% to 30%), the repair and construction of school facilities (49% to 42%), and school accountability for student test scores (47% to 41%). They are split overefforts to improve teacher quality (46% unsatisfied to 44% satisfied) and to reduce class sizes (45% to 46%) but express satisfaction with school safety efforts (54% satisfied to 39% unsatisfied). Some good news: Satisfaction levels on most measures (all but class size reduction) are up from February 2002, including teacher quality (+7 points), school safety (+6), school repair (+5), school accountability (+3), and school spending (+2). And although nearly half of Californians still believe that state test scores are below the national average, 51 percent now say that state per-pupil spending is average or above average.
Despite lingering concerns, Californians have seen progress and rate the quality of their schools more highly than they did two years ago: 49 percent give their local schools an “A” (14%) or “B” (35%), compared to 39 percent in August 2000. In January 2000, only 22 percent of residents believed there had been improvement in school quality statewide, while 39 percent thought the quality had worsened and 34 percent said it was unchanged. Today, 29 percent of Californians say the quality of education in K-12 schools has improved, while 28 percent think it has gotten worse and 36 percent believe it remains the same.
Residents with school-aged children living at home are far more positive about the quality of local schools and the statewide system, as well as the pace of reforms: Fifty-five percent give their local public schools an “A” or “B,” and 37 percent say school quality has improved statewide. Residents with children in their households are also far more likely than those without to say that children attending schools in their neighborhoods are getting a better education than they themselves did (52% to 34%).
Since 1998, Governor Davis has invested significant political capital in his efforts to improve public education in California and even asked voters to judge him on the issue at the ballot box. Today, Davis receives his highest marks in nearly two years on the issue. Currently, 50 percent of Californians approve of his handling of the state’s K-12 public education system, compared to 39 percent in January 2002 and 45 percent in January 2001. Residents with children at home are more likely than those without to approve of his performance on this issue (58% to 45%). Among likely voters, 46 percent approve of Davis on education, while 40 percent disapprove. Fifty-two percent of Californians – and 45 percent of likely voters – approve of Davis’ overall performance as governor.
Support Swells for Education Initiatives
Proposition 47 – a bond measure that would provide funding for kindergarten through university public education facilities – is currently supported by 63 percent of likely voters, up from 59 percent in September. The measure is favored by majorities of Democrats (74%) and independents (79%), while Republicans are divided (44% to 43%). Support for the initiative has grown substantially among independents since September (from 62% to 79%). Proposition 47 is strongly supported (76%) by voters who think their local public schools are not receiving adequate state funding. “Such solid support for a bond measure in an uncertain economy reveals the depth of concern about education in this state,” says Baldassare.
Support for Proposition 49 – a measure that would increase state funding for before and after school programs – is also strong: 64 percent of likely voters support the measure, an increase of 5 points since August. The initiative, which has been promoted by GOP activist Arnold Schwarzenegger, receives its strongest support from Democrats (73%) and independents (72%), but more Republicans today support the measure than oppose it (50% to 39%). Seventy-three percent of voters – up from 67 percent in August – say that Proposition 49 will improve safety for children and 55 percent believe it will help raise test scores.
Post-9/11 Approval Ratings: What Goes Up Must Come Down
Today, 60 percent of Californians approve of President Bush’s overall performance in office. His approval rating has slipped significantly since January (80%) and now looks similar to pre-September 11th ratings (57% in May 2001). As was the case prior to September 11th, there are now strong partisan differences in supportfor the president, with 86 percent of Republicans approving of his performance and 55 percent of Democrats disapproving.
High approval ratings for the U.S. Congress are also a thing of the past. Today, 38 percent of Californians say that the Congress is doing an excellent or good job – down from 59 percent in December 2001 and similar to October 2000 ratings. Individual members of Congress have also seen their performance ratings slip back to pre-September 11th levels: 41 percent of state residents say their local representative is doing an excellent or good job, compared to 52 percent in December 2001 and 44 percent in October 2000. Currently, 49 percent of Californians approve of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s job performance, down from 57 percent in February 2002. U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s approval rating (48%) has changed little since February 2002 (52%). Among likely voters, 54 percent approve of Feinstein’s performance and 49 percent support Boxer’s handling of her job.
Californians Conflicted About Iraq Policy
Currently, 51 percent of all Californians approve of President Bush’s handling of the situation with Iraq – considerably less than approve of his overall performance. Support for the president on Iraq has declined slightly since September (from 55% to 51%). The decline is most evident among Democrats (from 39% to 32%), while his support among Republicans (from 77% to 76%) and independents (from 51% to 48%) remains relatively consistent. Residents in the Central Valley (59%) and Southern California counties outside of Los Angeles (60%) are far more likely to support the president on this issue than are residents in Los Angeles (46%) and the San Francisco Bay Area (39%). There is less support in California than in the nation as a whole for the president’s handling of Iraq (51% to 58%).
Like Americans in general, Californians are divided over whether the Bush administration has done enough to explain to the public why the U.S. might take military action against Iraq. Fifty percent of Americans and 49 percent of Californians say the administration has not done enough, while 47 percent of both Americans and Californians say they have. Republicans (69%) are much more likely than Democrats (38%) or independents (45%) to say the administration has made its case.
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 has conducted large-scale public opinion surveys on a regular basis leading up to the November 2002 election. Findings of this final pre-election survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,007 California adult residents interviewed from October 7 to October 15, 2002. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for the 1,538 registered voters is +/- 2.5% and for the 1,000 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 http://www.ppic.org.
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 state and federal legislation nor does it endorse or support any political parties or candidates for public office.