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How Low Can We Go? Recall Reflects New Depths Of Pessimism In California

Economic Uncertainty, Budget Crisis Fuel Resentment of State Government; Residents Express Mixed Emotions About Iraq Conflict

SAN FRANCISCO, California, August 21, 2003 — Has the Golden State lost its luster?  Californians are increasingly gloomy about the state of the state and bitter about the performance of their elected representatives, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).  And they have found an outlet for their pain:  California’s first-ever statewide recall election appears to have captured their attention and mounting support.     

By a margin of more than three-to-one, Californians today say the state is headed in the wrong direction.  In recent years, Californians have been relatively pessimistic about the direction of the state, but the percentage who view the state’s direction negatively (66%) now stands at a six-year high.  Likely voters are even more pessimistic about the state’s future:  74 percent say it is headed in the wrong direction.  And the spreading disaffection has finally hit California’s most optimistic population:  By a two-to-one margin, Latinos now say the state is headed in the wrong direction (56% to 28%). 

Why such a gloomy outlook?  It’s the economy — and the state budget.  A majority (53%) of state residents say they expect bad times for the state economy in the coming year, down from February (71%) but similar to one year ago (51%).  Californians (58%) still believe their region of the state is in an economic recession.  Consistent with these worries, residents view the economy, jobs, and unemployment (34%) as the biggest problem facing the state, followed by the state budget and taxes (12%), education and schools (11%), and the gubernatorial recall (11%). 

If they are feeling little relief from their economic woes, Californians are getting even less satisfaction about their second biggest concern — the state budget — even after the passage of a budget deal earlier this month.  More than half of state residents (57%) and 61 percent of likely voters say they are dissatisfied with the budget plan.  Indeed, they appear unhappy with most aspects of the compromise budget:  61 percent oppose the idea of floating $11 billion in state bonds as a way to reduce the deficit, and 77 percent are very (36%) or somewhat (41%) concerned about the effects of spending cuts outlined in the agreement.   Although the budget does not raise taxes, Californians are split over whether or not it should (44%) or should not (50%) have included tax increases.  Despite their general disgust, residents today are even more opposed to an oft-mentioned budget process reform:  Only 39 percent support the idea of lowering the supermajority threshold for passing a budget in the state legislature, compared to 46 percent in June.

“A stagnant economy, a very public and unpopular budget drama, and a distrustful electorate:  All the makings of a perfect storm,” says survey director Mark Baldassare.  As the storm builds, approval ratings for Governor Gray Davis remain at historical lows, especially among likely voters:  72 percent say they disapprove of the way he is handling his job; 71 percent disapprove of his handling of jobs and the economy.  The state legislature has lost substantial ground:  68 percent of likely voters disapprove of the legislature’s overall performance, compared to 58 percent in June.  Currently, 78 percent disapprove of the legislature’s handling of budget and tax issues.

Total Recall

Given their frustration, it is understandable that Californians would be captivated by the recall campaign.  But the intensity of their interest is surprising — comparable to the level of interest during the energy crisis and following September 11th, and higher than during last fall’s gubernatorial election.  Today, 89 percent of likely voters are very closely (45%) or fairly closely (44%) following news of the recall.  “This is so much bigger than the recall itself,” says Baldassare.  “However unrealistic, voters are also hoping for a quick fix for their larger concerns.”  Indeed, 47 percent of likely voters say things in California would get better if Davis is removed from office, while only 17 percent say they would get worse and 28 percent believe there would be no change.

At this early stage of the campaign, 58 percent of likely voters say they would vote to remove Davis as governor, up from 51 percent in June and 50 percent in July.  Majorities of Republicans (84%), independents (60%), and Latinos (58%) support the recall, while a majority of Democrats (56%) oppose it.  The San Francisco Bay Area is the only major region of the state where a majority of voters (55%) would keep Davis as governor.  Governor Davis’ political problems stem from both his policies and his personal style:  Among likely voters, about half (48%) say they dislike the man and his policies, while only 12 percent say they like Davis and his policies.

Currently, 32 percent of all likely voters have not decided which of the candidates they would choose to replace Governor Davis.  Among those who have decided, more name Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger (23%) and Democrat Cruz Bustamante (18%) than any of the other candidates (no other candidate receives over 4 percent support).  Bustamante (27%) leads Schwarzenegger (19%) among Latino voters.

But despite the plethora of choices, only 49 percent of likely voters say they are satisfied with their candidate choices in the recall election, and 40 percent say they are unsatisfied.  “This is surprising given the wide range of choices, the sheer volume of candidates, and the level of support for the recall,” says Baldassare.  “It’s the wild card in the race.”  Despite being underwhelmed about their choices for the current election and conflicted about whether or not the current effort to recall the governor is an appropriate use of the recall process, voters overwhelmingly (80%) believe that the provision of a recall in the state constitution is a good thing.  However, when informed that the special election will cost between $50 million and $70 million, 53 percent believe it is a waste of money.

The Also Rans:  Propositions 53 and 54

Two initiatives, previously slated for the March 2004 ballot, have wound up as part of the October 7th Special Election.  Both currently enjoy slim majority support.  Proposition 53 — which would set aside between 1 and 3 percent of the state’s General Fund revenues for state and local infrastructure projects — is supported by 52 percent of likely voters, while 25 percent oppose the initiative and 23 percent are undecided.   Democratic (59%) and independent (51%) voters would vote yes on Prop. 53, but fewer than half of Republicans (45%) support it.  Despite the budget crisis, voters remain comfortable with setting aside portions of General Fund revenue for specific program areas: 58 percent say earmarking is generally a good idea.  And they consider infrastructure investment a worthy cause:  43 percent say the current level of funding for infrastructure projects is inadequate, while only 9 percent think it is more than enough.  

Currently, 50 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 — while 37 percent are opposed and 13 percent are undecided.  Republicans (60%), independents (52%), and whites (51%) are more likely than Democrats (43%) and Latinos (39%) to support this initiative.  Voters are divided about whether the collection of racial and ethnic data is important (50%) or unimportant (47%).  They are also split over the perceived effect of the initiative’s passage on racial and ethnic minorities in California:  26 percent believe it would be a good thing for these groups, 26 percent a bad thing, and 34 percent say it would make no difference.  There are sharp differences between whites and non-whites on this question:  A greater percentage of non-whites (34%) than whites (25%) say the initiative would be a bad thing for minority groups.      

Little Consensus on Iraq, But Confidence in U.S. Security as 9/11 Anniversary Looms 

Approval ratings for President George W. Bush have remained relatively stable in recent months: 53 percent of Californians say they approve of his overall performance in office — similar to his national approval rating (55%) — while 42 percent of state residents disapprove. 

California residents are divided over Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq:  Fifty percent say they approve and 45 percent say they disapprove.  This rating is also lower than his national approval rating on Iraq (56%).  These numbers reflect Californians’ mixed feelings about U.S. efforts to establish security in and rebuild Iraq, as well as about Bush Administration efforts to “sell” the action.  Half of state residents say that U.S. activities in Iraq have gone very (13%) or somewhat (38%) well since major hostilities ended on May 1st, while slightly fewer say they have not gone too well (27%) or have not gone well at all (19%).  Californians are also divided about the value of U.S. involvement in Iraq:  47 percent say the war is worth the toll it has taken in terms of American lives and other costs, while 46 percent say it is not worth these costs.  And although a majority of state residents (59%) say the war did contribute to the long-term security of the United States, a majority (53%) also believes that the Bush Administration intentionally exaggerated evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Support for President Bush is highest when it comes to his handling of terrorism and homeland security issues:  62 percent say they approve of his efforts in this area, down from 70 percent one year ago.  As the nation approaches the second anniversary of September 11th, 58 percent of state residents say they are very (14%) or somewhat (44%) confident that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies will be able to prevent future terrorist attacks.  However, while 61 percent of Californians say terrorism and security is a problem in the state today, residents are presently more concerned that new laws will excessively restrict civil liberties (54%) than they are that the government will fail to enact strong anti-terrorism laws (34%).

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 August 8 to August 17, 2003.  Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish.  The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%.  The sampling error for the 1,540 registered voters is +/- 2.5% and for the 993 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 https://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 on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

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