Schwarzenegger and Legislature Rated Low By California Voters: State Seriously Off on Wrong Track Amidst Serious Budget Problems and Declining Confidence They Will Do What is Right to Resolve It

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The California Field Poll has just released numbers from its latest survey and California voters are not painting a flattering picture of either the Governor, or as an institution, the Legislature. Record poll levels have not been approached, even in the legislature’s 27% approval rating to 57% disapproval ratings, nor in Governor Schwarzenegger’s 40% approval to 46% disapproval appraisal, nor with the level of those who say the state is seriously off on the wrong track (78%) to those 21% who say we are on the right track, but some more weeks or months of budget gridlock could take care of that.

Mark DiCamillo, Director of the Field Poll, has stated the obvious—that a declining economy and budget deficit with no land in sight of passage of a state budget are among the causes of the low ratings of electeds and the dour mood on the direction of the state. He has noted that Governor Schwarzenegger’s travels around the state where he has been seen with firefighters and other officials have not buoyed his ratings. And he has noted that “For the past twenty-five years the opinions that voters have had of the job performance of the state legislature as a whole has rarely been more positive than negative.”

But let’s take a good look at the numbers before asking the question of “why” the voters feel as they do. And first, a caveat. On the direction of the state and approval of the Governor’s job performance, the poll has a margin of error of 3.9% based on the 809 registered voters interviewed. On the other questions that Field asked, voters were divided into two roughly equal subsamples and the margin of error is 5%.

On the overall job performance of Governor Schwarzenegger, his approval by 40% and disapproval by 46% is statistically the same as his prior 41% approval and 48% disapproval in May. It is, however, substantially lower than the 60% approval he received last December with 31% disapproval and the levels of approval he held throughout 2007 that are in that ballpark. This represents a swing in the last 8 months from a net plus 29 point rating to a net negative 6% level. He’s been up and down in the past—and received his lowest ratings in 2005 in the 36% and 37% levels with 52% to 56% disapproval when he called a special election and his propositions were rejected by the voters. He has had his highest ratings in his first year in office in 2004 when three successive polls by Field showed him to be at a 65% approval level.

His current poll numbers are the result of low marks by Democrats (34% approval to 47% disapproval) and to a lesser degree by non-partisan/others (42% to 45%) and even the state’s Republicans give him a middling 48% to 46% approval.

As to the legislature’s performance as a whole, more than twice as many voters –57%–are disapproving and approval is down to 27% from last May’s 30%. The legislature has received lower ratings—a nadir of 19% approval and 67% disapproval in July of 2003—and other ratings that are lower or in this same statistical range. But this is one of its lowest ratings and lower than it has been in the last two years. The last time the legislature had a positive rating was the relatively balmy 42% approval and 40% disapproval rating of March of 2007 (when Governor Schwarzenegger was also at a 60% approval rating.

Democrats in this latest set of numbers give the legislature its “best” marks, with 35% approval and 47% disapproval. Republicans give it the worst rating at 17% approval and 72% disapproval. And non-partisan/others are in the middle at 24% approval and 57% disapproval.

There is a definite uptick in voters perceiving the state’s budget deficit as being serious. The numbers on this were so sky high when last polled in December where 90% saw this as serious, with only 5% saying it was not serious, that there is little for this number to go up—but it did within the margin of error to 92% saying it was serious. The shift here is that now 68% of voters say the budget deficit is “very serious,” up from 58% who said so in December when this question was last posed largely coming from those who said it was only “somewhat serious.” And the partisan divide on this one is not that great with 71% of Democrats saying it is very serious compared to 66% of Republicans and 65% of non-partisan/others. All of partisan groupings are in the range of 91% to 93% in agreeing that it is serious, to one degree or another.

Confidence in our state government “doing what is right to resolve the state’s budget deficit” is not as high as it was in December and one can read these numbers in different ways beyond that.

Once can say that only 14% express a “great deal” of confidence in the Governor doing the right thing (down from 23% in December) and only an even smaller 4% (down from 7%)–about the lowest number one can get in a poll—say this about the legislature. Or one can combine these numbers with the 44% who say they have “some” confidence in the Governor on this combining to a 58% level of confidence to 41% who say they have “not much” confidence. And one can combine the 42% who say they have “some” confidence in the legislature to say that there is a 46% level of confidence to 52% who say they have “not much” confidence. Last December by a margin of 69% to 29% voters had at least some confidence in Governor Schwarzenegger doing the right thing on the deficit and also had a 55% level of at least some confidence in the legislature in this regard to a 40% level of not much. Clearly, both have dropped by about 10 points in this overall level.

Voters have the most negative view about the state of California’s direction than they have had since 2003, an in this regard, this is shared by all partisan groupings. 68% say we are “seriously” off track in our direction and 21% say we are heading in the right direction. This is down perhaps a tick from the prior 68% wrong track and 23% right track, but well within the margin of error.

The record here is 7% who thought we were on the right track in 1992 with 90% responding with the wrong track answer in 1992. In August of 2003, it was lower at 16% right track and 76% wrong track. The last time Californians thought we were on the right track was in March of 2007 when it was 52% to 38% on the good side of the tracks.

There may be a slight difference with the state’s Republicans and non-partisan/others weighing in at 71% each and Democrats only responding at 64% that we are on the wrong track. But the right track numbers are within the margin of error, hovering between 20% and 23%.

Why?

These are the numbers from Field, a well respected and longstanding non-partisan and non-profit polling organization that is an accurate snapshot of California voters in a scientific survey.

As for analysis of what this means, why the voters respond as they do, these numbers by themselves are a bit like a Rorschach inkblot test. inkblot-test.gif At the right do you see two birds fighting with each other with a dove at the top between them?

I have pointed out in many different poll analyses that legislatures—deliberative bodies—generally do nor rate well with the voting public. But voters have a much higher favorable opinion of their own representatives. Executives, such as the Governor, State Attorney General, or a President, can rise to higher heights, and sometimes lows as low as legislatures generic ratings.

Legislatures are almost always by their nature and composition messy institutions. There is the give and take of accounting for different points of view. There is a byzantine process through which legislation must wend its way—committee hearings, floor votes, and often the need to reconcile differences between two different houses. Even where a majority of legislators support a bill, it may be derailed in a committee dominated by a membership that represents interests focused on that policy area. And in California, we have a supermajority—two-thirds—that is required to pass a state budget and much of what can be done—especially if it involves an appropriation of money, the need for immediate effect of a law, or taxes.

Voters respond to strong executives who can take bold action. Legislatures are often a mush.

And I dare say, the numbers on questions on Congress and the California State Legislature are a muddle as well. Many who hold the political views and opinions on public policy that I believe in are unhappy with the legislature’s inability to solve problems, such as the subprime mortgage mess and the failure to pass laws in this area that may not meet the lending industry’s approval. Or the failure to pass sentencing reform and deal with our overcrowded prisons. Although I approve of some actions taken by the legislature and understand the need for compromise, on any given day I could respond to a poll with either an answer that I approve or disapprove of the California legislature—which I follow in great detail. Others, of a different political set of beliefs are unhappy that the legislature has not passed legislation that I disagree with. The same goes for Congress whether it is “controlled” by Democrats or Republicans—and where there is a 60 vote margin in the Senate required to take action.

One needs to read these polls carefully and in their entirety and to place them in the context of other polls and what is known about voters and their opinions. For instance, answers to questions about who California voters trust on making the tough decisions on the budget—where legislative Democrats and the Governor were preferred over legislative Republicans.

One can go on about these other polls—and perhaps we will in future articles. I’ve asked pollsters if the same people who gave Congress low marks when it was controlled by Republicans are the same folks who give the state legislature low marks when it is controlled by Democrats. They were not able to feather that out from the poll results. My suspicion is that there are a number of those who are critical coming from different points of view—and some that are unhappy for entirely different reasons when it comes to institutions. I’d love to see the results of focus groups or other polls that can help explain this.

If we had a legislature that could take action by majority vote on the budget and other matters, there would be more accountability and one could understand voters’ polling responses better, as we can when it comes to individual members of the legislature or other officeholders. That is, to the extent that the voters being surveyed are following what is going on in Sacramento in any detail.

If readers are aware of any studies of why voters are unhappy with institutions, I would welcome comments and articles to elucidate on this. I am sure I will get many different answers.

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