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Press Release · September 24, 2008

Obama Holds 10-Point Lead in California, But Debates Loom Large

Electorate Engaged, Worried About Economy – Palin Energizes GOP But Fails To Change the Race

SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 24, 2008 — California’s likely voters prefer the Democratic ticket of Barack Obama and Joseph Biden to Republican contenders John McCain and Sarah Palin by 10 points, but they’ll be watching closely to see how the candidates perform in a series of televised debates before marking their ballots. Eight in 10 say the debates will be very important (38%) or somewhat important (41%) in deciding who gets their votes, according to a statewide survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from The James Irvine Foundation.

What do they want to hear the candidates debate? The economy leads the list.

Despite a month of high-profile activity that included the party conventions and selection of vice presidential candidates, the Democratic contenders’ lead (50% to 40%) over the Republicans among California’s likely voters is nearly identical to what it was in August (48% to 39%). Widely viewed as a move to win over women voters, McCain’s addition of Palin to the GOP ticket has shifted few votes to the Republicans. Female likely voters, who supported the Democratic ticket by 21 points last month (53% to 32%), support it by 20 points today (56% to 36%). Democrats and Republicans support their respective party’s tickets in overwhelming numbers, while independents back Obama-Biden over McCain-Palin, 53 percent to 35 percent. Latino likely voters favor Obama-Biden (57% to 30%), but their support for the Democratic ticket has dropped substantially since August (71% to 16%).

As the campaign enters its final weeks, a majority of California’s likely voters (65%) say they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting. They are happier with their choices than they were a month ago (64% today, 48% in August), with Republicans registering the sharpest increase in satisfaction (67% today, 35% in August). Democrats’ satisfaction is also higher (74% today, 68% in August).

“The selection of Governor Palin dramatically increased the enthusiasm of California Republicans for their ticket, but it does not look like it will change many votes,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “Californians are loyal to their parties in this race, but they still hope to learn more from the debates. They are worried about the economy, upset with leaders at all levels of government, and want to hear the presidential candidates’ plans to change the course.”


With Wall Street in turmoil, likely voters across political and demographic groups most frequently name the economy as the issue they most want to hear the candidates debate. Four in 10 (40%) mention the economy, followed by the war in Iraq (12%), immigration (7%), and health care (6%).

When asked which candidate would do a better job handling key issues …

  • Likely voters prefer Obama to McCain on the economy (53% to 37%), health care (57% to 29%), and energy policy (51% to 38%).
  • They prefer McCain to Obama on foreign policy (51% to 43%).
  • They are more divided on who would better handle the war in Iraq (49% Obama, 44% McCain) and immigration (42% Obama, 40% McCain).

Views on these issues are divided along partisan lines, with most voters believing their party’s candidate is the one for the job. Among independent likely voters …

  • A majority prefer Obama to McCain on health care (59% to 25%), the economy (50% to 39%), and energy policy (55% to 35%).
  • They prefer McCain on foreign policy (53% to 36%).
  • They are divided over who they would prefer to handle the war in Iraq (48% Obama, 46% McCain) and immigration (40% Obama, 39% McCain).

Regardless of their partisan leanings, Californians view the presidential election as crucial for the course of the nation. Most likely voters (79%) say that in making progress on important issues, it really matters who wins. With stakes this high in voters’ minds, it’s no surprise that nine in 10 are following news of the campaign very closely (52%) or somewhat closely (39%).


When it comes to the state ballot, a majority of likely voters oppose Proposition 8 (55% no, 41% yes), the constitutional amendment that would eliminate same-sex marriage in California. The overall percentages have held steady since August (54% no, 40% yes), but there have been shifts among voter groups. More Democrats plan to vote no on the measure (71% today, 66% in August), and more independents plan to vote yes (42% today, 36% in August). Eight in 10 likely voters say the outcome of this measure is very important (54%) or somewhat important (26%) to them, with those who plan to vote yes (62%) more likely than those voting against it (51%) to say the results are very important.

Almost half of likely voters back Proposition 4 (48% yes, 41% no), the constitutional amendment that would require a parent to be notified at least 48 hours before a minor child has an abortion. They were more closely divided in August (47% yes, 44% no). Voters defeated similar measures in 2005 and 2006.

Proposition 11, which would take the authority to draw legislative district lines from elected officials and give it to a commission of registered voters, has failed to rally a majority in favor or against it. Likely voters are as divided (38% yes, 33% no, 29% undecided) as they were in August (39% yes, 36% no, 25% undecided). Support for the measure has increased among Democrats by 5 points and dropped among independents by 10 points. However, divisions on this measure do not indicate support for the current redistricting process: About seven in 10 likely voters (69%) think it needs to be changed.


At the time of this survey, the state budget standoff had entered its fourth month, and Californians’ frustration with the process was reflected in their changing views about structural reform. Three in four (76%) say major changes are needed in the budget process – an increase of 11 points since May, when the governor released his revised budget. Nearly half (49%) think it would be a good idea to lower the threshold for passing the budget from two-thirds to a 55 percent majority of the state legislature. This proposal, which was defeated at the polls in 2004, is opposed by only 37 percent of the state’s residents. A year ago, nearly half (46%) thought this change was a bad idea, and only 44 percent thought it was a good idea.

A majority (62%) say it would be a good idea to strictly limit the amount of state spending increases allowed each year, while less than a third (31%) consider it a bad idea.


Against the backdrop of a worsening economy and the longest budget impasse in state history, Californians are feeling grim about the future and dissatisfied with many of their state and national leaders.

A record-high 44 percent of adults say that jobs and the economy are the top issues facing the state. This is true across all party and demographic groups, although Democrats (47%) and independents (44%) are more likely than Republicans (36%) to hold this view.

Nearly seven in 10 Californians (68%) expect bad times financially in the year ahead. About half say the current housing situation in California will hurt their finances a great deal (31%) or somewhat (21%). The perception that the state is going in the wrong direction is widely held (68%). While this negative view has changed little since last month, it has grown by 18 points in the last year.

Californians are pessimistic about their elected leaders’ ability to handle the challenges:

  • State legislature gets record low rating: Only one in five Californians (21%) approve of the job the legislature is doing, a decline of 5 points since last month.
  • Constituents give their own legislators low marks: Only one in three residents (34%) approve of the job their own state senator and assembly member are doing, an 8-point drop since March and a 7-point drop from a year ago.
  • Governor fares slightly better: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 38 percent approval rating has held steady from last month but is still 12 points lower than a year ago.
  • President Bush’s approval drops to new low: Among Californians, the president’s approval rating is 23 percent, a slightly more negative assessment than he received in a recent CBS News/New York Times national poll (27% approval).
  • Congress’ job approval rating slips: Congress’ 29 percent approval rating is about the same as last month, but 4 points lower than in March.
  • Congressional representatives rated higher: The state’s residents give higher approval ratings to their own Congressional representative (49%) and to Senator Dianne Feinstein (48%), Senator Barbara Boxer (44%), and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (40%).


How Californians would have balanced the budget – Page 20
As they have since January, a plurality of residents (43%) favor a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, while fewer (36%) favor balancing the budget mainly through cuts and fewer still (7%) prefer tax hikes alone or borrowing money and running a deficit (5%). But they are deeply divided along party lines in their preferences.

Residents conflicted over the initiative process – Page 21
As they get ready to vote on a state ballot that includes 12 propositions – 10 of them citizens’ initiatives – Californians say the process is flawed and that there are too many initiatives on the ballot and that they’re too complicated. However, 38 percent say initiatives should be the guiding force in determining policy, while 32 percent choose the legislature and 20 percent prefer the governor.

Many say a third political party is needed – Page 22
Despite their views that there are important differences between the two major parties, a slim majority of Californians (52%) say that the nation needs a third political party. Republicans are much less likely than they were four years ago to say that the two major parties are doing an adequate job.


This survey is the 31st in the Californians and Their Government series and is supported with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. It seeks to raise public awareness, inform decisionmakers, and stimulate public discussion on state and national issues and the November general election. This is the 90th PPIC Statewide Survey in a series that has generated a database that includes the responses of more than 192,000 Californians. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,002 California adult residents interviewed from September 9–16, 2008. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2% and for the 1,157 likely voters is +/- 3%. 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 a private, nonprofit organization 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. 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.