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Press Release · August 17, 2004

Voters Engaged In Top Races And Entrenched In Their Views

Much Interest, Few Undecideds in Presidential, Senate Races; Concern Grows Over War in Iraq

SAN FRANCISCO, California, August 17, 2004 — Campaign season has come early to California. The state’s increasingly partisan voters are surprisingly engaged – and dug in – at this stage in the general election process, according to a new survey released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

How important is the upcoming election to likely voters in California? Sixty-four percent say they are more interested in politics now than they were during the 2000 presidential election, with liberals (69%) more likely than conservatives (61%) to hold this view. Californians are presently more engaged in the political process than are Americans generally: Fewer voters nationwide (47%) say they have greater interest in politics today than they did four years ago. And most Californians today (89%) say they are following presidential election news very (48%) or fairly (41%) closely. In August 2000, only 41 percent of likely voters in the state were very closely following coverage of the presidential candidates.

Currently, the Democratic ticket of Senators John Kerry and John Edwards holds a 16-point lead over the ticket of Republican President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney (54% to 38%), up from an 11-point spread in July (49% to 38%). Kerry is ahead among independent voters (64% to 25%) and among all demographic groups, including Latinos (68% to 26%) and women (58% to 34%). Bush leads in the Central Valley (53% to 41%) and in Southern California counties excluding Los Angeles (48% to 42%), while Kerry draws his strongest support in the Bay Area (66% to 26%) and in Los Angeles (63% to 29%).

Although it is early in the campaign, very few voters today are undecided about their presidential pick: Only 6 percent of likely voters say they have not yet chosen a candidate. In August 2000, the percentage of undecided voters in the presidential contest (14%) was more than double what it is today. “The growing polarization of the electorate in California explains some of this decisiveness, but that’s not the whole story,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “It is obvious that both sides see a great deal at stake in this election.”

Economy, War Top Issues in Presidential Race

Asked which issue they would most like to hear the candidates address during the presidential campaign, likely voters most often name the economy, jobs, and unemployment (26%), followed by the war in Iraq (21%), and terrorism or national security (9%). Across the state, with the exception of the Central Valley, the economy is the number one issue on voters’ list of campaign topics. Kerry is favored over Bush by a wide margin among those who cite the economy, jobs, and unemployment (60% to 33%) and Iraq (62% to 31%), while Bush is chosen over Kerry among those who name terrorism (66% to 30%).

President Bush and his policies are disliked by nearly half of likely voters today (45%), while just 33 percent say they like Bush and like his policies. Interestingly, more voters like Bush (50%) than said they liked President Clinton (45%) four years ago. However, President Clinton’s policies (62%) were liked more than President Bush’s policies (35%) are today. President Bush’s overall approval rating has fallen to a record low (40%) and is lower than the national rating for his presidency (46%).

Views on Iraq Situation Darken, But Homeland Security Concerns Remain Stable

One of the major policies of President Bush – the effort in Iraq – is receiving increasingly negative reviews from Californians. Sixty-three percent disapprove of his handling of the Iraq situation, up 18 points from one year ago. Today, only 34 percent of state residents – and 37 percent of likely voters – approve of the president’s handling of Iraq, compared to 45 percent nationally.

These numbers reflect Californians’ increasing concern about U.S. efforts to establish security in and rebuild Iraq, as well as about the Bush administration’s efforts to “sell” the action. One year ago, half of state residents (51%) said that U.S. activities in Iraq were going at least somewhat well. Today, only 33 percent share this view. And 61 percent now say it was not worth going to war in Iraq. One year ago, residents were split over whether or not the effort was worth the costs (47% yes, 46% no). Californians are also increasingly inclined to believe that the Bush administration intentionally exaggerated evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Today, 57 percent hold that view, up from 53 percent in August 2003. Despite these concerns, nearly half of Californians still believe that the U.S. is more secure as a result of our efforts in Iraq (51%) – a decline from 59 percent one year ago – while 44 percent disagree.

Bush gets higher ratings for his handling of terrorism and homeland security, with half of Californians approving and half disapproving (47% to 49%). Nonetheless, approval of the president’s performance in this area is considerably lower than it was in August 2003 (62%). As the nation approaches the third anniversary of September 11th, 55 percent of state residents say they are at least somewhat confident that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies will be able to prevent future terrorist attacks. This confidence level has changed very little since a year ago (58%). Sixty-six percent of Californians view terrorism and security as a problem in the state today – compared to 61 percent in August 2003 – but only 15 percent are very worried that they or someone in their family will be the victim of a terrorist attack. Latinos (38%) remain far more concerned than other groups about becoming the victim of such an attack.

Where do Californians stand on one of the main recommendations of the 9/11 Commission? An overwhelming majority (71%) support the idea of creating a national director of intelligence.

Governor Remains Popular; Budget and CPR Get Positive Reviews

Approval ratings for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are back to where they were before the recent budget standoff with the state legislature. Two in three Californians (65%) – including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents – approve of the way he is handling his job generally, and 58 percent like his handling of the state budget and taxes. Why the improvement? Many Californians (52%) say they are satisfied with the recent budget agreement and most (65%) favor Schwarzenegger’s plans for changing state government through the California Performance Review process. The legislature does not fare as well: 45 percent express overall disapproval, and 53 percent disapprove of the way it is handling the budget and taxes. “Schwarzenegger is a unique phenomenon in a state where both Republican and Democratic officials are viewed in a negative light,” says Baldassare.

Support for Local Government, Mental Health Props but Not for Health Insurance Referendum

Proposition 1A – the ballot measure designed to keep state government from dipping into local sales and property tax revenues when funds get tight – enjoys a sizeable lead (60% to 25%). A strong majority of likely voters (63%) think it is a good idea to protect local government revenues, even if this means less funding for state programs. Interestingly, Schwarzenegger’s backing of Proposition 1A does not appear to carry much weight at this time – nearly two in three likely voters (64%) say it makes no difference to them. More important is concern about the effects of current budget cuts on local government: 76 percent of likely voters are worried about what these cuts will mean for their local services, and 63 percent say they would be willing to increase their local sales tax by one-half cent to pay for these services.

Also on the November ballot is Proposition 63, which would raise the personal income tax on those making over $1 million annually by 1 percent to fund expansion of mental health services. Sixty-six percent say they support this measure, with a similar number (63%) believing that the current level of state funding for mental health services is inadequate. In general, voters support the idea of tying a specific tax to a specific service, with 55 percent calling this method of budgeting a good idea.

Proposition 72 – a referendum on legislation passed last year requiring all large and medium employers in the state to provide health insurance for their employees – is currently short of the majority needed to approve the law (45% to 34%). Most likely voters (67%) think requiring companies to provide health insurance would pose a problem for employers. Nonetheless, two in three (66%) say it is very important that large and medium employers offer health insurance to their employees.

Initiative Process Still Seen as Important but Flawed

Californians’ love-hate relationship with the state’s initiative process continues: While they believe in the policymaking value of the process, they also readily admit to its shortcomings. Large majorities of state residents say initiatives bring up important public policy issues that have not been adequately addressed by the governor and state legislature (75%) and believe it is a good thing that a majority of voters can make laws and change public policies through direct democracy (74%). Moreover, a majority (59%) say that the public policy decisions made by voters through the initiative process are probably better than decisions by the governor and legislature. However, majorities of Californians also agree that the ballot wording for initiatives is often confusing (75%) and that there are too many propositions on the state ballot (60%).

More Key Findings

  • Boxer maintains lead in Senate race — Page 3
    Among likely voters, incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer has a 17-point lead over Republican challenger Bill Jones (53% to 36%) with 10 percent undecided. Most voters (57%) say they are satisfied with their choices in the Senate race. However, three in four Democrats (72%) are satisfied compared to fewer than half of Republicans (48%) and independents (44%).
  • Californians are divided about direction of state, economy — Page 21
    Forty-four percent of Californians say the state is headed in the right direction, while 42 percent disagree. Forty-five percent expect good times financially in the next year, while 40 percent do not.
  • Many Californians lack health insurance — Page 25
    Nearly one in five Californians (19%) say they are not covered by any form of health insurance.

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 2,002 California adult residents interviewed between August 4 and August 11, 2004. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. For more information on 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 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.