PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · September 14, 1998

Issues, Not Character, Will Decide Election, Survey Finds

Governor Wilson, Legislature Rewarded for Tax Cut; Despite Growing Concern Over Global Economic Crisis, Californians Are Confident

SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 14, 1998 — Despite the penchant of campaign insiders to focus on questions of character and trust in the major statewide races, California voters don’t consider character the most important factor in choosing among candidates. According to a statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, voters rank the candidate’s positions on the issues as their top concern by a wide margin (61%), followed distantly by character (18%) and experience (14%).

These findings reflect the fundamental distrust that Californians have of people in elected office as well as a sense that government is simply not working in their best interests. Indeed, four in 10 Californians say that “quite a few” people in government are “crooked.” Sixty-three percent believe that they can trust the federal government to do what is right only some of the time.

“Voters seem to look upon any character-related pitch with great suspicion for the simple reason that they are conditioned to view politicians as ethically-challenged,” said Mark Baldassare, director of the PPIC Statewide Survey. “Voters seem to be saying, `Don’t brag about your sterling character, just tell me what you plan to do.’ They seem to view their relationship with elected officials as merely transactional.”

Tax Cuts Boost Politicians’ Approval Ratings

This transactional relationship between voters and elected officials is suggested by the link between the recent state tax cut and rising approval ratings for Governor Wilson and the State Legislature. Forty-two percent of Californians say the Governor is doing an excellent or good job, an eight-point jump since May. The State Legislature has seen a six-point increase in that time, with 36% giving the Senate and Assembly excellent or good marks.

Nearly eighty percent of Californians describe the recent $1.4 billion tax cut as important to them, with 41% calling the reduction very important. Of those who now give the Governor and Legislature excellent or good marks, 85% say the tax cut is important to them.

Education Worries Driving Huge Support for Bond Measure

Californians still view crime and education as the most serious public policy challenges facing the state. Crime tops the list — 30% say it is the most serious problem. Twenty percent believe that education is the top concern. Nearly 50% of Latinos view crime and drugs as California’s most serious problems.

Among likely voters, there is overwhelming support for Proposition 1A, a $9.2 billion school bond recently placed on the November ballot by the State Legislature. Seventy percent say they will vote in favor of the measure, which will finance new construction and repairs to older buildings for the state’s K-12 public schools, community colleges, and public universities. Public enthusiasm for Proposition 1A cuts across political parties, regions, and racial and ethnic groups.

Support for the bond measure is being fueled by the perception that the current level of state funding for public schools is inadequate. Two-thirds of likely voters believe that K-12 education does not receive enough funding from the state. Only 10% say the current allocation is more than enough. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to see state education funding as inadequate (78% to 46%).

Davis Leads, Senate Race a Dead Heat

Democrat Gray Davis leads Republican Dan Lungren in the race for Governor by a nine-point margin among likely voters (47% to 38%). Davis is being buoyed by strong support from Democrats, Latinos, and the coastal regions of the state. Among Latinos, Davis enjoys a two-to-one edge over Lungren. However, Lungren’s lead over Davis in the Central Valley is substantial (49% to 37%). Sixteen percent of likely Republican voters say they will “cross-over” to vote for Davis in November, while 8% of Democrats support Lungren. Neither candidate currently has a lock on the crucial block of independent and other party voters.

The U.S. Senate race is a statistical dead heat between Democrat Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Matt Fong. Among likely voters, Boxer receives 45% and Fong 43%. While Boxer maintains an advantage among Latinos and voters in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas, Fong holds a commanding 20-point lead in the Central Valley.

Californians Generally Upbeat, Despite the Asian Meltdown

Californians are increasingly disturbed about the potential impact of the Asian financial crisis on the state’s economy. Sixty-six percent now expect there to be some negative fallout from the crisis, a 16-point increase since April. San Francisco Bay Area residents — perhaps because of the region’s dependence on high technology exports — are the most concerned: Seventy-five percent believe that problems in Asia will affect the state’s economy.

At the same time, Californians continue to be upbeat about the state’s prospects. Fifty-seven percent believe that the state is headed in the right direction, compared to 34% who feel it is moving in the wrong direction. These statewide numbers are virtually unchanged from the April and May surveys. However, while the percentage of those who believe the state is headed in the right direction was identical across California in the Spring surveys, the current survey reveals that the mood is now distinctly different in the three major regions of the state. Residents of the Los Angeles metropolitan area are the most positive (63%), followed by the San Francisco Bay Area (53%) and the Central Valley (48%).

About the Survey

The purpose of the PPIC Statewide Survey is to develop an in-depth profile of the social, economic, and political forces at work in California elections and in shaping the state’s public policies. Surveys are intended to provide the public and policymakers with relevant information on the following: Californians’ overall impressions of key policy issues and of quality of life; differences in social and political attitudes among demographic groups and across different regions of the state; the characteristics of groups that are shaping the state’s elections and policy debates; and the political attitudes underlying “voter distrust” of government and low voter turnout. A total of five surveys will be conducted and released during the 1998 election cycle. The first two surveys were conducted in April and May of this year.

Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,000 California adult residents interviewed from September 1 to September 7, 1998. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for the 1,613 voters is +/- 2.5% and for the 1,046 likely voters is +/- 3%.

Dr. Mark Baldassare is a senior fellow at PPIC. He is founder and director of the Orange County Annual Survey at UC Irvine. For over two decades, he has conducted surveys for major news organizations, including the Orange County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, KCAL-TV, KRON-TV, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to independent, 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.