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Press Release · October 27, 2004

What If They Held An Election And Nobody Came?

Californians' Disillusionment With State Campaigns Looms Large

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 27, 2004 — There is a large disconnect between how California politicians run campaigns and what voters want — and the fallout could seriously undermine the state’s democratic process, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).  Nowhere was dissatisfaction with political campaigns and elections more evident than in the 2002 match-up between Governor Gray Davis and Bill Simon — an election that might serve as a textbook example of everything voters dislike about campaign politics, and the lack of participation these negative feelings can breed.

“The 2002 election generated the highest campaign spending and the lowest voter turnout in state history,” says PPIC research director Mark Baldassare, who co-authored the report with Bruce E. Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley; D.E. Apollonio, postdoctoral fellow at UC San Francisco; and Jonathan Cohen, PPIC Statewide Survey associate director.  In fact, some of the very tactics that ran up costs in that campaign — television attack ads with little discussion of the issues — are the same ones that frustrate voters and keep them away from the polls.  The analysis, The Season of Our Discontent: Voters’ Views on California Elections, is based partly on ten 2002 PPIC surveys conducted with over 20,000 Californians.

In the 2002 election, only one in four likely voters said candidates’ advertisements were helpful in making a decision, and only three in 10 said they were satisfied with the discussion of issues facing the state.  “Some candidates are winning elections by spending enormous amounts of money on TV ads — usually negative — but it could be costing them power and legitimacy in office if these tactics turn people off on voting,” says Baldassare.  “High voter registration in the current presidential election is encouraging, but the long-term trends for California’s state elections are comparatively grim.”

In fact, voter turnout has declined sharply in gubernatorial elections since 1982, dropping from 70 percent that year to a record low 51 percent in 2002.  During the same period, campaign spending by candidates skyrocketed from under $23 million to nearly $98 million.

Moreover, dislike of electoral politics may be contributing to deteriorating trust in state government generally.  Between 2001 and 2004, the percentage of Californians who said they usually trust state government dropped from 47 to 32 percent.  In this context, public support for electoral reforms is relatively high.  In 2002, 57 percent of likely voters supported the idea of public, rather than private, financing of campaigns, and 77 percent said they would view candidates more favorably if they signed a pledge to run a truthful, fair, and clean campaign.  “Despite practical limitations on some of these reform ideas, they show that voters have such a strong desire to get away from the negative tone of today’s campaigns that many are receptive to the public paying for elections,” says Baldassare.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to 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.