As the days of December tick down and most people focus on the holidays, players in California's world of politics are gearing up for a big election year. Next year will feature a race for governor, with Jerry Brown widely expected to seek another term. Control of Congress will also be in the balance, and there will likely be an array of state ballot measures competing for voters' attention.
We talk with Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, who has been sampling voters' opinions as we head into an election year.
Scott Shafer: Mark, why don’t we begin in Sacramento: The results show that people are feeling pretty good about what’s happening with the state Legislature. In your latest survey, 40 percent approve of the job they’re doing, 44 percent disapprove. Now, that may not sound great, but it’s the best it’s been in a decade. What do you think it counts for?
Mark DiCamillo: I think voters are looking at what’s going on in Sacramento and hearing that the state’s projected revenues are now higher than expected. They think times are finally turning around. What that probably means is more money for popular programs – the K-12 schools, higher education, and so on – which have been severely cut in the past five years. I think voters are starting to feel that the state is in better hands. And I think they give credit to both the governor and the Legislature for their management of the current situation.
Shafer: And in fact, the Democrats now have two-thirds majorities in the Assembly and the Senate. How do voters like that?
DiCamillo: Well, as you might expect, when you ask about the Democrats’ two-thirds control of these houses, it’s a very partisan view. If you look at it overall, voters are divided. Forty-five percent think a two-thirds Democratic control of both houses is a good thing for California, but 39 percent think it’s a bad thing. Again, Democrats overwhelmingly positive, Republicans overwhelmingly negative, and non-partisans – which generally tell you which way the wind is blowing – are evenly divided on the matter.
Shafer: It seems from your polling that voters’ assessments of President Obama and Gov. Brown are sort of going in opposite directions. President Obama’s disapproval rate is up to 43 percent, with 51 percent approving, but Gov. Brown’s approval is up to 58 percent, which is the highest of his term. What do you make of that?
DiCamillo: I pretty much think that’s the outlook of voters. They look at what’s going on in Washington and they shudder. They were feeling quite good about the federal government, at least when Obama was re-elected last year. Voters were upbeat about the direction of the country, now not upbeat at all. Obama’s ratings are mixed, 51 percent-43 percent. Yet statewide, Brown’s ratings are now at a record high for this term. I think he’s getting some of the credit that voters are also giving to the state Legislature for turning around the state’s finances, and now I think entering an era of fairly good news coming out of Sacramento.
Shafer: So as we head into an election year, how would you asses the strength of Jerry Brown as the head of, the leader of the Democratic Party? He hasn’t said he’s running for re-election, but he’s certainly raising money like he is.
DiCamillo: Oh, he’s quite formidable. Although he hasn’t announced, we put his name in a simulated open primary ballot against three Republicans who are likely to be running for governor, and what we find is Brown is way out ahead, 52 percent support for Brown. No Republican gets more than 11 percent, so a very dominant position there. There are very few subgroups of the voting population where Brown trails.
Shafer: Let me ask you about the field of Republicans, because we know that former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonando is running, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly – who is associated with the Tea Party – is also running, and then there’s this wild card Neel Kashkari, who was an assistant treasury secretary under former President George W. Bush. He’s a liberal Republican, or at least moderate, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, even voted for Obama in 2008. Given the mood of voters, given the strength of Jerry Brown, what would it take for someone like that to really break out and give Jerry Brown a run for his money?
DiCamillo: From a Republican standpoint, you have to look at this as a two-step process. The first step is to just make it to the general election, which means you have to come in second in this open primary. The field is wide open, I mean the poll is showing Maldonado at 11 percent, Donnelly at 9 percent, Kashkari at 3 percent. So only 8 percentage points separate the three. If you’re an opportunist like perhaps Kashkari is, that presents an opportunity. All he needs to do is come in second, and then try to build from there, and then take on the governor in the fall.
Shafer: The Republican Party, of course, is really at a low point in California, is at a huge disadvantage in the Legislature, doesn’t hold any statewide offices. What does your polling show about the party’s efforts so far to kind of rebrand itself and make itself more acceptable to more people?
DiCamillo: I think that’s going to be a multi-year, maybe even multi-decade process. I can’t imagine that we’re going to see a big turnaround in voter attitudes toward the Republican Party in one year. I know they’re trying to make a concerted effort this year, but this is long overdue and is something that will take many, many election cycles if indeed they will be successful.
Shafer: Never a dull moment in California politics.
DiCamillo: We enjoy it.