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Press Release · October 24, 2000

Presidential Race Tightens In California

Debates Change Few Minds; Residents Less Optimistic About Economic Prospects

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 24, 2000 – One man’s loss is not necessarily another man’s gain. Although Al Gore has seen his lead in California halved in the past month, his decline has not translated into increased support for George W. Bush, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Gore also faces new challenges that could affect his bid to strike electoral gold in the state: Voters see economic trouble on the horizon and have added another issue – foreign policy – to their basket of concerns.

Vice President Gore now leads Texas Governor George W. Bush by a 5-point margin in California (44% to 39%), down from nine points in PPIC’s September survey. Interestingly, while Gore’s support has slid four points (48% to 44%), Bush has failed to pick up additional backing, remaining steady at 39 percent. Instead, Gore’s decline has led to small increases for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader (4% to 6%), other third party candidates (2% to 3%), and undecided voters (7% to 8%). A similar story emerges among voters outside the major parties: Gore support among this critical group has dropped significantly, from 42% to 29%, while Bush hasn’t budged (28%), and third party candidates have gained (18% to 28%). Although Gore maintains his strong advantage over Bush among women (54% to 38%), Bush has expanded his lead among men (48% to 40%). Gore now leads Bush by an even wider margin among Latinos (64% to 25%), while support for Bush is greater among non-Hispanic whites (44% to 39%).

“The race in California is less stable than anyone expected,” said PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “It is here that Nader could most affect Gore’s chances for victory. But Gore and Bush have an opportunity in these final days: Voters here are remarkably engaged and looking for a connection to the candidates that they didn’t find during the presidential debates.”

Indeed, half of California’s likely voters say the debates were not much help to them in deciding whom to vote for in November. The survey – which began on the evening of the second debate and ended the day after the third and final debate – reveals that only 14 percent of voters think the debates helped a lot, while 32 percent found them somewhat helpful. From the debates, voters say they learned the most about the candidates’ stands on the issues (33%) and character (29%), followed by their intelligence (16%) and experience (7%). Gore is favored over Bush by those who say they learned the most about the candidates’ positions on issues (46% to 38%), intelligence (59% to 23%), and experience (71% to 23%). Bush is the strong favorite among those who say they learned about the candidates’ character (55% to 30%).

Election Issues

In the final weeks of the campaign, California voters are focused on five key issues – education (17%), foreign policy and national defense (13%), health care (11%), taxes (10%), and Social Security and Medicare (10%). Since the September survey, turmoil in the Middle East has altered voters’ focus somewhat from domestic to international concerns. While education remains the top issue after dropping slightly from 19% to 17%, voters are now more eager to hear the candidates discuss foreign policy and defense issues (rising from 5% to 13%) rather than health care (sliding from 15% to 11%) and Social Security and Medicare (falling from 14% to 10%). “Gore may have some cause for concern here,” noted Baldassare. “Foreign policy is widely viewed as an issue that bolsters Republicans.”

Gore still leads Bush when voters are asked who would do a better job of handling issues related to education (51% to 39%), health care (54% to 35%), and Social Security and Medicare (52% to 37%). Bush remains ahead of Gore on the issues of tax cuts (53% to 35%) and the military (57% to 34%).

On two issues that have been much-debated in the presidential race – big government and tax cuts – Californians stand a bit apart from the rest of the nation. State residents are more likely than the nation as a whole to want a larger government with more services (39% to 33%), although majorities in both cases say they would prefer a smaller government with fewer services. And while slight majorities also say they would prefer to see tax cuts targeted to lower- and middle-income families (Gore’s proposal), Californians are more likely than the nation as a whole to support Bush’s plan for across-the-board tax cuts (48% to 40%).

Trouble in Paradise?

The tightening of the race in California might also be related to rising concern about the state’s economic prospects. While most Californians still believe that the state is headed in the right direction, the number of residents sharing this view has been declining gradually. Today, 59% of Californians say that things are headed in the right direction, a seven-point decline from January of this year.

Specifically, Californians are concerned about the possible economic effects of rising energy costs. Eighty percent believe that higher prices for things such as gasoline, utilities, and electricity will hurt the state’s economy in the next year or so. Half of the state’s residents think that rising energy costs will hurt the economy a great deal, while 30 percent say higher prices will have only somewhat of an effect. A majority of Californians say they are very closely (29%) or fairly closely (31%) following news stories about utility deregulation and higher energy bills.

Education Initiatives Static

Although education remains a top priority for state voters, this concern has not translated into increased support for Proposition 38, the school vouchers initiative. Similar to last month’s findings, a majority of voters (55%) say they would vote no, 36 percent would vote yes, and 9 percent are undecided. Despite a flurry of television commercials by both sides – and the fact that 71 percent of voters say they are closely following news coverage of the initiative – only 26 percent of voters feel that they have learned a lot about how a voucher system would work. However, 57 percent believe that passage of the voucher initiative would not help the public school system.

Governor Gray Davis, whose education record has been challenged in recent advertisements funded by proponents of Prop. 38, has seen some decline in his overall approval ratings since September (66% to 60%) but still enjoys strong support from state residents.

Support for Proposition 39 – which would make it possible to approve local school bonds with a 55 percent majority rather than a two-thirds vote – has inched higher, with 50 percent supporting the measure, 37 percent opposing it, and 13 percent undecided. Even though Prop. 39 lowers the threshold for passing local bond measures, only 38 percent of voters think its passage would make it easier to approve local school construction bonds in their area, while 15 percent say it would be more difficult, and 30 percent think it would make no difference. Most voters (64%) say they would support a local bond measure by their local school district if it appeared on the ballot in November.

Power to the People

While they may be divided about the content of specific propositions, Californians are devoted to the state’s initiative process. In fact, they appear to have greater faith in voters than in their elected officials when it comes to making public policy decisions. Nearly 70 percent of state residents think it is a good thing that a majority of voters can make laws and change public policies by passing initiatives.

A majority (56%) supports the right of voters to make permanent changes to the state constitution through the initiative process. Fifty-six percent of Californians also say that public policy decisions made by state voters are probably better than decisions made by their elected representatives in state government. Surprisingly, Latinos – who represent a minority of state voters – are more positive than the state as a whole about the winner-take-all initiative process.

Supportive as they are, Californians are also aware that the process is not perfect. Only ten percent of the state’s residents say they are very satisfied with the way the initiative process is working today, while a majority (58%) say they are only somewhat satisfied. Indeed, three in four residents think that the system needs changes and only one in five says that the system is fine the way it is. Thirty-two percent of Californians say they would like to see major changes in the process, while 43 percent believe that any changes should be minor in nature.

Other Key Findings

  • U.S. Senate Race: Page 5
    Senator Dianne Feinstein maintains a strong lead over Republican challenger Congressman Tom Campbell (48% to 31%).

  • Congressional Elections: Page 6
    Democrats have a seven-point edge over Republicans when voters are asked about their preferences in local Congressional races (47% to 40%).

  • Clinton Job Approval: Page 17
    President Clinton remains popular in California, with 59% saying he is doing an excellent or good job.

  • Trust in Government: Page 20
    Californians (58%) – especially the state’s Latinos (64%) – are more likely than the nation as a whole (51%) to have at least some confidence in Washington’s ability to solve problems.

  • Digital Divide: Page 27
    More Latinos report using a computer at home, work, or school (70%) and accessing the Internet (56%) than one year ago, resulting in a narrowing of the technology gap.

  • Internet Use: Page 28
    More Californians than ever before say they go online to get news and information on current events (51%), job information (50%), or to purchase goods and services (40%).

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 2000 election. Findings of the current survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,007 California adult residents interviewed from October 11 to October 18, 2000. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for the 1,646 registered voters is +/- 2.5% and for the 1,096 likely voters is +/- 3.5%. For additional information on survey methodology, see page 29.

Dr. Mark Baldassare is a senior fellow and program director at PPIC. He is founder and director of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has conducted since 1998. For over two decades, he has directed surveys for the University of California, Irvine and major state news organizations. Dr. Baldassare is the author of numerous books, including California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape (University of California Press, 2000).

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