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Press Release · December 16, 2009

Whitman Leading, But Most GOP Voters Undecided

Brown Tops Republicans in Potential Matchups—But Falls Short of Majority

SAN FRANCISCO, December 16, 2009—Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman leads the field among likely voters in the GOP gubernatorial primary with 32 percent support, compared to 12 percent for former Congressman Tom Campbell and 8 percent for state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. But the highest percentage of likely GOP voters—44 percent—is undecided, according to a statewide survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from The James Irvine Foundation.

In hypothetical head-to-head matchups for the November general election, the prospective Democratic candidate and current state Attorney General Jerry Brown bests all three Republicans. But he does so with less than majority support.

Six months before the gubernatorial primary, the four major party candidates expected to be on the ballot are attracting little enthusiasm or attention among Californians likely to vote. Only 10 percent of likely voters are very closely following news about the candidates, and 33 percent are fairly closely following the news (36% not too closely, 20% not at all closely). Just 32 percent of likely voters are satisfied with their choices of candidates in the primary, and 42 percent are not (26% don’t know). Democrats are more likely to express satisfaction (38%) than independents (29%) or Republicans (25%). But across parties and ideological groups, more likely voters are unsatisfied with their choices than satisfied.

“Voters have more immediate concerns than who is going to be the next governor,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “Despite all the advertising in this early stage of the campaign, Republican primary voters are more likely to say they are undecided than to favor one of the three GOP candidates. At the same time, the Democrats’ likely candidate falls short of majority support when matched up against the Republican contenders.”

Republicans Fail To Make Big Impression, and Brown Makes a Mixed One

At least half of likely voters across parties and demographic groups don’t know enough about Whitman to have an opinion about her or haven’t heard of her. Her highest favorability ratings are among Republicans, independents, and conservatives (28% of each) and men (27%). Sixty-eight percent of women are unable to give an opinion of Whitman—the only woman in the race—compared to 51 percent of men. Seventy percent of likely voters have no opinion of Campbell. His highest ratings are among Republicans (21%), San Francisco Bay Area likely voters (24%), men (20%), those with household incomes of at least $80,000 (20%), and renters (21%). Seventy-three percent of likely voters have no opinion of Poizner, who has no more than a 12 percent favorability rating in any group.

Opinion is evenly divided on Brown (35% favorable, 36% unfavorable). A majority of Democratic likely voters (52%) have a favorable opinion of him, a majority of Republicans (59%) have an unfavorable one, and independents lean toward unfavorable (39% unfavorable, 34% favorable). A sizeable 69 percent of likely voters under age 35 cannot give an opinion of the former two-term governor.

In potential November matchups, Brown leads Whitman by 6 points (43% to 37%), Campbell by 12 (46% to 34%), and Poizner by 16 (47% to 31%) among likely voters. Partisan preferences are key in these leads. Independent likely voters are divided in a race between Whitman (37%) and Brown (36%), and they support Brown over Campbell (40% to 25%) and Poizner (42% to 23%). Among female likely voters, Brown has a 12-point lead over Whitman, a 21-point lead over Campbell, and a 22-point lead over Poizner.

More Voters Prefer Candidates To Raise Money Than Spend Their Own

What qualities do likely voters value in a candidate for statewide office? Half (49%) view a candidate more positively for using mostly money from supporters in a campaign, and 39 percent hold a more positive view of a candidate who uses his or her own money. Pluralities of Republicans (55%), independents (50%), and Democrats (46%) view a candidate who uses supporters’ money more positively.

California’s likely voters are evenly split on whether it’s more important for a candidate to have experience in elected office (43%) or running a business (43%). The fault lines are ideological and political, with Democrats (60%) and liberals (63%) valuing experience in office, and Republicans (61%) and conservatives (61%) valuing experience in business.

Two-thirds Vote on Budget, Gay Marriage Are Most Important Issues

At a time when many initiatives are circulating to qualify for the 2010 ballots, the survey asked likely voters to assess the importance of a half-dozen issues that may be up for a vote. Which issues are viewed as very important—either because they are favored or opposed?

  • Lowering the vote requirement for the legislature to pass a state budget: 54 percent
  • Allowing same-sex couples to marry in California: 51 percent
  • Allowing voters to select any candidate, regardless of party, in state primaries: 47 percent
  • Legalizing marijuana in California: 38 percent
  • Allowing voters to call a constitutional convention in California: 35 percent
  • Allowing public funding of statewide campaigns in California: 32 percent

Given the importance likely voters place on the issue of lowering the legislative threshold to pass a state budget, it’s not surprising that 88 percent of them call the budget situation a big problem. When asked how they would prefer the state to deal with a multibillion-dollar gap between revenues and spending, 44 percent say mostly through spending cuts, while 39 percent would prefer a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. Since January, the preference for dealing with the budget gap mainly through cuts has increased 12 points (32%) among likely voters and for the mixed approach has declined 9 points (48%).

In the aftermath of the legislature’s passage of a package of bills designed to address the state’s water crisis, the survey asked about the $11.1 billion water bond measure that is part of the package and is slated to be on the November ballot. How important is it that voters pass the measure? Most likely voters say it is very important (43%) or somewhat important (31%).

61% Approve of Obama—Fewer Back Economic, Health Care, Afghan Plans

Turning to Californians’ assessments of federal leaders and issues, most Californians (61%) approve of the way President Obama is handling his job—similar to their views in September (63%) and more approving than adults nationwide, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll (50% approve, 39% disapprove). Californians are much more approving of Obama’s performance than they are of Congress. They give Congress a 38 percent approval rating, also similar to September (39%). About half (51%) approve of the job their own member of the U.S. House of Representatives is doing, a 5-point drop from September (56%).

But California residents are less satisfied with Obama’s handling of the economy. Only 31 percent say his economic policies have made economic conditions better. By comparison, 42 percent say his policies have made no difference and 21 percent say they’ve made economic conditions worse. Californians are split over whether the federal government’s response to the financial crisis will help the state, with 46 percent saying it will and the same percentage saying it will not. And although a majority of California residents were satisfied with the first federal stimulus package, they are less willing to support more spending to stimulate the economy: just 39 percent would support it, and 53 percent would oppose it.

Half of Californians support (52% vs. 39% oppose) proposed changes to the health care system—a top domestic priority for Obama— given what they know about the legislation. Their views have changed little since September (51% support, 38% oppose). Californians’ support declines sharply with age and is lowest among those 65 and older (42%). Californians are more supportive (61% vs. 33% oppose) of creating a government health insurance plan to compete with private insurers, as they were in September (62% support, 33% oppose).

Californians take a pessimistic view of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. Just 6 percent say things are going very well, with 26 percent saying they are going fairly well and the majority saying things are going not too well (32%) or not at all well (29%). A plurality (44%) say U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be decreased, while just 33 percent say they should be increased.

In the wake of Obama’s December 1 speech announcing an increase in U.S. troops and setting a timetable for withdrawal, Californians are divided on his plan: 49 percent favor it and 45 percent are opposed. The results are similar to Americans nationwide in a USA Today/Gallup poll (51% favor, 40% oppose). Across parties, a majority of Democrats (55%) favor the president’s plan, Republicans (54%) oppose it, and independents are split (46% favor, 46% oppose).

More Key Findings

  • Jobs, economy dwarf other issues —page 13
    As it has since January 2008, jobs and the economy top the list of Californians’ concerns, with 61 percent calling it the most important issue facing the state in an open-ended question. The state budget, deficit, and taxes come in a distant second (13%), and water (2%) is further down the list.
  • Governor, legislature approval ratings at record lows —page 15
    Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approval rating of 27 percent sinks to a new low among all adults. It’s been at 40 percent or below since August 2008. The legislature’s approval rating is lower still and matches its record of 17 percent, first recorded in July 2009.
  • For Californians, the recession is still up close and personal —pages 14, 22, and 23
    Reports about the end of the recession are unconvincing to most Californians: 91 percent say the state is in a recession and 60 percent say it is a serious one. Half of the state’s residents are very (34%) or somewhat (16%) concerned that they or someone in their family will lose a job in the next year, and another 11 percent volunteer that their family has already experienced job loss. And 65 percent of residents say they are very (45%) or somewhat (20%) concerned that they will not have enough money to pay the rent or mortgage. Nevertheless, 53 percent expect their financial situation to improve a lot (6%) or some (47%) over the next year.


The PPIC Statewide Survey has provided policymakers, the media, and the general public with objective information on the perceptions, opinions, and public policy preferences of California residents since 1998. This survey is part of a series that examines the social, economic, and political trends that influence public policy preferences and ballot choices. It is supported with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,004 California adult residents interviewed on landlines and cell phones from December 1–8, 2009. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences. The sampling error is ±2 percent for all adults, ±3 percent for the 963 likely voters, and ±5 percent for the 352 Republican primary likely voters. 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 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. As a private operating foundation, 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.