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Political Analysis: Polling Data

Political Analysis: Polling Data
Two new polls are out tracking the attitudes of California voters. The polls reflect recession-era gloominess and reveal what could be some competitive races ahead for the California Senate and Governor's office.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. With double digit unemployment, shrinking social services and another multi-billion dollar state budget deficit looming, Californians don’t seem to be very happy with government right about now. Two new polls are out tracking voter sentiment in the Golden State. The results are predictably gloomy but interesting and there are indications that some surprises may be developing in our upcoming statewide senate and gubernatorial races. Joining me to discuss the results of recent state polling is my guest, KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s start out with the new Field Poll. What is this poll tracking?

PENNER: Well, it really is tracking two different areas. It is thinking about the country overall. That’s the question that they asked: Do you think things in the United States are generally going in the right direction or do you think that they’re going seriously off track? And then a statewide question: Thinking about the state, do you think things in California—that’s kind of general…


PENNER: …are going in the right direction or do you feel things are seriously off on the wrong track? So those are the two major questions.

CAVANAUGH: So what did Californians feel? First of all, this is California registered voters who were…


CAVANAUGH: …polled, right?


CAVANAUGH: How do we feel about the direction of the country in general?

PENNER: Well, Californians are definitely taking a negative view about where the country is heading. 49% say it’s on the wrong track, 41% say it’s the right direction. And the surprising part is that this state still gives the president pretty decent numbers. Last March, after he was in office only two months, he received a 65% approval rating of his job performance, and then October it had dropped to 60%. And now one year after he assumed office, it’s gone down to 56% approving his job performance so it’s on the way down but it’s still much more than 50%. Most of the decline in optimism, I found, is among Democrats, Liberals, the young, the middle aged, and men. And I’m guessing that Democrats, Liberals and the young reflect a disappointment in this first year of the Obama presidency—they had such high hopes for change. The middle age probably see their retirement savings slipping away and so they’ve become kind of gloomy. And men are particularly hard hit by joblessness and that would be enough to turn them negative. Three months ago, all of those same groups were coming in with numbers about 10% higher for the right direction, and perhaps they were seeing, you know, the old year go out, a new year come in, and they hoped for some positive news. But then the wrangling over healthcare took over and the job situation didn’t get any better.

CAVANAUGH: Now you say there’s been some slippage in Democratic and Independent feeling about right track, wrong track when it comes to the country overall. But is there a big split between California Democrats and Republicans on this right track, wrong track question?

PENNER: Oh, you bet. Democrats, 57% on the right track. Republicans 15% on the right track, 75% on the wrong track. And for those who identify a lot with the Tea Party movement, which is totally against the huge national debt, out of control government budget, stimulus spending, they represent, believe it or not, about 12% of all California registered voters who identify with the Tea Party movement. They barely eke out 1% that the country is going in the right direction, and 95% on the wrong track. So you can see the extreme numbers there.

CAVANAUGH: That’s a statistic in itself. 12% of California registered voters identify themselves as a Tea Party movement, in the Tea Party movement.

PENNER: They identify themselves as a lot with the Tea Party – a lot, meaning that they strongly have – they have strong feelings, positive feelings toward the Tea Party movement.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, so what did this Field Poll reveal about what California voters think about the direction the state is going in?

PENNER: Well, the Field Poll has been pretty consistent on this over the last 10 months, the numbers declining to the current low of only 14% of registered voters believing we’re in the right direction and it’s been staying like that for months. A whopping 79% say we’re on the wrong track, and I can’t find positive feelings anywhere regardless of party, region, gender, age, race, ethnicity. But here’s one really interesting tidbit when I really went into the numbers. The group that is most pessimistic about the state’s direction are white, non-Hispanics. Their numbers come in at 11% for any positive feelings, only 11%, while 20% of Latinos and 22% of Chinese-Americans see us heading in the right direction. I won’t even try to explain that, Maureen. Maybe someone in the extended KPBS family can.

CAVANAUGH: Even so, the numbers are still low all down the line it seems.

PENNER: Oh, yes.

CAVANAUGH: A more wide-ranging poll was released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California. First of all, Gloria, are both these polls nonpartisan?

PENNER: Yeah, they both say they’re nonpartisan. They say they’re independent. And the Field Poll was actually established way back in 1947 by Mervin Field, then it was called the California Field – the California Poll. But it appears to me that that’s probably supported by the Field Research Corporation because they are a full service research firm so they probably make some money with the research firm and through that they are able to fund the Poll. The Public Policy Institute of California—let’s call it PPIC, it’s easier—it’s funded by the James Irvine Foundation and so this is really an institute rather than a business.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, what kind of questions are in the PPIC poll?

PENNER: Well, the poll looked into approval ratings for the president, congress, the governor and the legislature, and it gave Obama a 61% job approval rating, just a few points better than the Field Poll but it’s still a nine point drop from last February. Congress, get this, only gets 36%...


PENNER: …which is about the same as last year. 56% or a majority of Californians believe the president and the congress can work together this year. That’s kind of positive. But this is still a steep drop from the 81% who believed they would accomplish a lot in the February poll. They were much more pessimistic about the governor and the legislature, near record lows at 30% for Schwarzenegger and 18% for the state legislature. And their view of whether the legislature and the governor can work together has hit the lowest level since the survey started asking that question in 2006.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Now I know that this poll asked really a lot of questions about various ways the California voters might support fixing the budget and other legislative issues. What are some of the things that stand out in the poll?

PENNER: Well, the one that really stands out is that when they came up with the priorities of what should be protected from budget cuts, it looks like this: K-thru-12, that comes out number one strongly, and then after that, higher education and health and human services kind of tie, and way down the line was prisons and corrections. In fact, 49% of Republicans said they would be willing to pay more taxes to maintain K-thru-12 funding. And, you know, 79% of Democrats said yes, but that was a surprise for me that, you know, all those Republicans say, yeah, we’re willing to pay more taxes. A few other key findings, a majority of Californians see the amount of money spent on public employee pension systems as a problem and becoming more of a problem with each survey. They would like to see, two-thirds of them would like to see the public employee system changed to a 401(k) plan rather than giving public employees defined benefits.

CAVANAUGH: And what are some – about the candidate match-ups in the senate and governor’s races? Can you encapsulate that for us?

PENNER: I will. Brown has a very narrow lead over Meg Whitman. Of course, Brown hasn’t even declared yet. Independents tend to favor Brown. Boxer comes a close to Tom Campbell, only 45 to 41. Amazing. She’s going to have a hard race, I think. And the Independents tend to favor Boxer, too. Everything else is along party lines. She has an eight point lead over Carly Fiorina and about the same over Chuck Devore.

CAVANAUGH: That is interesting.

PENNER: Yes, really close.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Gloria, you spoke with Mark Baldassare, he’s president of the Public Policy Institute of California, about conducting these polls. What did he tell you?

PENNER: Well, first of all, I asked him what the purpose of the survey is and this is what he said.

MARK BALDASSARE (President, Public Policy Institute of California): Well, the purpose of our poll, really different we think than others in the sense that, you know, many polls are conducted for – specifically for the media to use but we really try to provide information which we think that policymakers can use to make decisions about public policy. We feel particularly, in a place like California where there’s so much reliance on voters to make public policy decisions, that our representatives in state and local and federal government ought to know about how the public stands on different issues such as the budget or political reform or government reform in general because many times those – we will turn around and ask those voters to make decisions at the ballot box. But we also think in general if representatives are going to represent the people that they should know where the people stand on issues from what are objective and nonpartisan and independent surveys, such as ours.

PENNER: So I followed up with that because, you know, we’ve gotten the results of the poll quite negative so I asked him what his assessment was of the change in voter sentiment.

BALDASSARE: Californians are very, very concerned about the lack of progress on important issues that are facing our state. And if I look overall at what’s going on now, Californians feel that the budget cuts that we’re making are catching up with us. You know, the lack of action on important issues facing the state, whether it’s higher education system or it’s K-thru-12 system, health and human services, are catching up with us and that they’re in more of a mood for reform and change than we’ve seen in recent years.

CAVANAUGH: More of a mood for reform and change.

PENNER: Yeah, I think that’s really the big word there. Republicans are expecting big wins in November because of the dissatisfaction and already we’ve seen them take some key races in places like Massachusetts and Virginia. And it’s all going to really depend on whether voters will automatically go for the incumbent, as they tend to do, or vote their party, which they tend to do, or whether they’re going to rebel and vote adventurously just to see that change that they were promised last year. And, of course, with the growth of Independents, this is the key thing. It’s almost impossible to really predict because Independents are all over the place now.

CAVANAUGH: Right, California’s thought of as a blue state.


CAVANAUGH: But from the results of this poll, the numbers appear to be closer than you might expect.

PENNER: Well, this is true. And actually there was an article in the Sacramento Bee saying just to show you how you can’t predict with Californians, they went hugely for Obama in the same election in which they also voted for Proposition 8 which banned same sex marriage. And normally you would think of those as diametrically opposite politically.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Gloria. This sounds like it’s going to be a very interesting election year.

PENNER: Oh, I’m looking forward to it.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Gloria Penner, KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. If you’d like to post your comments, please go online, And, coming up, an update from San Diego County’s Oxy Task Force as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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