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Press Release · December 3, 2003

It’s A Wonderful Life: Orange County’s Upbeat Attitude Stands Out In Difficult Times

County's Consumer Confidence Way Up; High Ratings For Schwarzenegger, But Budget Strategy May Trouble Residents

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 3, 2003 — Whatever economic or political turmoil is embroiling California and the country, Orange County residents believe in happy endings. They are not only positive about the future and quality of life in their own county, but their confidence extends to the state and nation, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and the University of California, Irvine. In fact, Orange County residents are considerably more optimistic than Californians as a whole.

Case in point: Half (50%) of Orange County residents say California is headed in the right direction today, while only 32 percent of residents statewide said the same in PPIC’s November 2003 Statewide Survey. Even California’s uneasy economic situation hasn’t seriously dampened confidence in Orange County as it has in the rest of the state: 56 percent of county residents anticipate California will see good financial times in the next year, compared to 39 percent of all Californians.

“The optimism Orange County residents feel toward the state may reflect the almost universally favorable views they have about their own quality of life,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. The survey found that nine in ten residents (90%) believe that things are going well for the quality of life in Orange County – an increase of over 30 percentage points since 1993. And despite the state’s tough economic times, majorities of Orange County residents rate the local economy as excellent or good (57%) and do not believe the county is in a recession (55%). More residents think Orange County will be a better place to live in the future (33%) or will stay the same (33%) than believe it will be a worse place to live (28%).

Optimism Extends to Consumers, Real Estate Market

The Orange County Consumer Confidence Index has climbed 7 points to reach 97 this year – surpassing the national index (90). High expectations for the national economy over the next twelve months are largely driving the upsurge: 63 percent of county residents expect good business conditions nationwide next year. Views on national business conditions diverge along partisan lines, with more Republicans (79%) than Democrats (49%) foreseeing good times. The longer-term, five-year outlook is not as rosy, with only slightly more residents anticipating good (47%) national conditions rather than bad (42%).

Other factors affecting Orange County’s rising index: 53 percent of residents report an improvement in their personal finances, up slightly from 50 percent a year ago. And although just under half of residents (45%) expect to be in better financial shape in a year, only 6 percent believe they will be in worse shape.

Orange County residents also display overwhelming confidence in the local real estate market, despite high housing costs. The number of homeowners who say buying a home in the county is an excellent or good investment has reached a new peak (86%), a 4-point rise over last year. This level of confidence might be expected from homeowners, but the view is shared by a large majority of renters (69%), as well as residents in all parts of the county (South County – 83%, North County – 78%) and whites (82%) and Latinos (76%).

OC Gives Schwarzenegger Thumbs Up… and a To-Do List

By a more than two-to-one margin (55% to 25%), Orange County residents approve of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plans and policies for the future, making residents here more supportive of the new leader than Californians as a whole (47% approve, 25% disapprove). Predictably, approval ratings divide along party lines, with 80 percent of county Republicans, 50 percent of independents, and 40 percent of Democrats voicing approval for Schwarzenegger’s plans. There is little partisan division when it comes to what the governor’s main concerns in office should be: Similar majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents believe jobs and the economy (68%, 67%, 62%, respectively) and the state budget and taxes (82%, 72%, 71%) should be Schwarzenegger’s top priorities.

Despite his popularity, the new governor’s proposal to place a bond on the March ballot as a way of dealing with the state’s multi billion dollar deficit may not resonate with county residents. In fact, only 8 percent of residents think it is all right to address the state’s budget problem by borrowing money and running a deficit, while far more prefer a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases (39%), or mostly spending cuts (36%). “Orange County residents have a fairly conservative economic outlook, so it’s not surprising that they don’t like the idea of further borrowing and prefer serious belt tightening,” says Baldassare. Indeed, three in four local residents (75%) and likely voters (78%) say the state could spend less and still provide the same level of services. Six in 10 residents believe services can be maintained if cuts are not deeper than 20 percent.

Orange County’s suspicion about wasteful spending goes hand-in-hand with a general feeling of mistrust toward state government: Only three in 10 residents believe that Sacramento lawmakers do the right thing most of the time. These convictions are revealed in residents’ preference for smaller government: 54 percent would rather pay lower taxes for less government with fewer services, while only 38 percent prefer paying higher taxes for a larger government with more services. Attitudes diverge sharply along both party and racial and ethnic lines. Republicans strongly prefer smaller government (75% to 18%), while a majority of Democrats prefer larger government (51% to 41%). Whites choose smaller government (65% to 29%), and Latinos favor larger government (61% to 29%).

Hometown Heroes? Kudos for Local Government, Services

In contrast to their feelings about the state, Orange County residents are highly satisfied with their city and county governments and services. Over half (53%) give their city government a rating of excellent or good, while 40 percent say the same about the county. Approval is even stronger when it comes to local services: Residents give excellent or good ratings to parks and recreational facilities (81%), police protection (79%), freeways and streets (67%), and public schools (58%). Fewer residents believe that spending cuts can also be made at the local government level without reducing services, even though a majority (63%) still hold this view. By way of comparison, in the March 2003 Survey of Los Angeles County, residents were much less likely to express positive views about their local services.

Bush Country

Orange County residents would vote to re-elect President George Bush if the 2004 presidential election were held today. Residents support Bush over any Democratic nominee (46% to 34%) – among likely voters the margin increases (51% to 33%). Statewide numbers from the September 2003 Statewide Survey are nearly the reverse: 46 percent support the Democrat and 37 percent support Bush. National polls show that Americans are evenly divided. Not surprisingly, Orange County residents (59%) give Bush higher overall approval ratings than residents in the state (48%) or nation (52%) as a whole.

OC Residents Feel Pain of Local Ills Less Than Others in State; Transportation Twist

Although many Orange County residents rank traffic congestion (56%), housing affordability (51%), growth and development (33%), and lack of well-paying jobs (23%) as big problems, they are less troubled by these issues than residents in other regions of the state. Housing is a greater concern in the San Francisco Bay Area (76%), growth is a bigger problem in Los Angeles County (48%), and both San Francisco and Los Angeles area residents find traffic congestion more bothersome (70% and 72%, respectively), according to the July 2003 Statewide Survey.

With traffic congestion topping the county’s perceived problems, residents rank freeway and highway improvements as their highest priority for transportation funds (33%), followed by a light rail system (21%), the public bus system (18%), and local streets and roads (14%). However, while more than two-thirds of residents are satisfied with the way the Measure M sales tax funds are being used to fund transportation projects, support for extending the tax beyond its 2011 expiration date falls just short of the two-thirds majority requirement among adults (65%) and registered voters (62%). In a further twist, nearly half of residents (49%) and a majority of registered voters (53%) oppose lowering the supermajority requirement to 55 percent.

More Key Findings

  • Shop ‘Til You Drop — Page 2
    Sixty-two percent of Orange County residents say it is a good time to make major purchases.
  • Ethnic Divide — Pages 4 and 5
    Orange County Latinos (12%) are far more likely than whites (2%) to consider crime the county’s biggest problem, while more whites (21%) than Latinos (5%) cite growth and development. On the employment front, Latinos (44%) are nearly three times as likely as whites (15%) to say the lack of well-paying jobs is a big problem.
  • So Close Yet So Far: North vs. South — Pages 1 and 7
    South County residents (70%) are significantly more likely than those in the North (53%) to rate the county’s economy as excellent. On transportation issues, the South is more enthusiastic about toll roads (65% to 47%), while the North more strongly favors building a light rail system (73% to 65%).

    About the Survey

    The Special Survey of Orange County – a collaborative effort of PPIC and the School of Social Ecology at UC Irvine – is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. This is the third in an annual series of PPIC surveys of Orange County. Findings of the current survey are based on a telephone survey of 1,004 adult Orange County residents interviewed from November 4 to November 10, 2003. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 3%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. 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. From 1982 to 2000, Dr. Baldassare directed the Orange County Annual Survey for UC Irvine. 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.