Support for governor plunging, poll finds Special election, budget unpopular among Californians
John Wildermuth, Chronicle Political Writer
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suddenly ranks among the most unpopular governors in modern California history, as residents grow increasingly unhappy about the action hero-turned-politician's budget plans and his call for a special election, according to a new Field Poll.
Less than a third -- 31 percent -- of the state's adults approve of the job the governor is doing in Sacramento, down from 54 percent in February. The numbers are only slightly better among registered voters, 37 percent of whom are happy with Schwarzenegger's performance and 53 percent dissatisfied.
"There's very little for the governor to cheer about in this poll,'' said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. "There's a very broad-based view that the governor is off on the wrong track.''
Schwarzenegger's approval rating among registered voters is lower than any number recorded by the Field Poll for governors Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown and George Deukmejian. He now ranks fourth in unpopularity, behind Democrats Gray Davis and Pat Brown and Republican Pete Wilson.
For more than a year, the governor has been surfing a wave of popularity, gathering support not only from his fellow Republicans but from the Democrats and non-partisans who make up the bulk of California's voters.
But Schwarzenegger's high-profile battle with the Democrat-led Legislature and his continuing disputes with groups representing California teachers, nurses and public employees have taken a toll. Only 16 percent of registered Democrats approve of the job the governor is doing, while his support among nonpartisan voters has shrunk to 35 percent, down from 48 percent four months ago.
Schwarzenegger's sinking support even shows up among Republicans, where his approval numbers have fallen from 84 percent in February to 66 percent in the new survey.
The governor's numbers haven't sunk to the dismal levels of former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who was recalled in October 2003 and replaced by Schwarzenegger. Davis's 22 percent approval rating in August 2003 was the lowest ever recorded by a Field Poll, DiCamillo said.
Besides Davis, the only governors to fall below Schwarzenegger's current 37 percent approval were Pete Wilson, at 33 percent in September 1992 and May 1993, and Pat Brown, at 35 percent in October 1961. Despite those low numbers, both won re-election.
"We've seen these type of reversals and downturns before, but almost always because of an external event, like the declining economy for Wilson or the energy crisis for Davis,'' DiCamillo said. "But here, almost nothing has changed. It's almost a self-inflicted thing.''
The governor's increasing unpopularity is showing up in his other numbers. Only 17 percent of the state's voters have a great deal of confidence in Schwarzenegger's ability to resolve the state's budget problems, compared with 49 percent who don't have much confidence he will do the right thing.
While the survey was taken in the week following the governor's announcement of the Nov. 8 special election, his argument that the election is a desperately needed effort to reform the way the state operates didn't convince the voters.
Support for the special election among registered voters fell to 37 percent from 51 percent in February. That backing dropped to 28 percent when the election's cost of $45 million to $80 million was mentioned.
Although the poll numbers for the three initiatives Schwarzenegger is backing in November won't be released until today, an unpopular messenger won't help the message, said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic consultant who's running the union-backed effort against the governor's initiatives.
"He's been on the air, he's the messenger,'' Kaufman said Monday. "Obviously, voters aren't buying what he's selling.''
While unions and other groups have spent millions on television ads attacking Schwarzenegger this year, the governor and his allies fought back with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign of their own that ran through much of May. The ads, which featured the governor talking with average Californians about the need for government reform, weren't enough to stop Schwarzenegger's political bleeding.
"This doesn't change our strategy one iota,'' Kaufman said. "It just gives us more confidence to go ahead.''
The governor's political team dismissed the Field Poll numbers, saying their own surveys put Schwarzenegger's approval rating above 50 percent and show that a strong majority of Californians back his plan for government reform.
"Anyone who believes that the governor is down to 66 percent support among Republicans is in for a big wake-up call in November,'' Mike Murphy, the governor's political consultant, said. "The real campaign for these reforms has not even begun, and our opponents are already declaring victory.
"They can declare victory all summer long, for all I care. We are squarely focused on November.''
A sour and hostile public can hamstring a governor's ability to get anything done, said Steve Maviglio, who was a spokesman for Davis when the former governor's approval ratings were in free fall.
"It makes it more difficult to make deals since you're negotiating from a position of weakness,'' he said. "The voters are suspicious of everything you do, since they don't trust you.''
The poll wasn't all roses for Maviglio's current employer, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles. As low as Schwarzenegger's ratings were, the Legislature was even less popular: 24 percent of the registered voters were pleased with the job it was doing, and only 5 percent said they had a great deal of confidence in the Legislature's ability to deal with the state's budget deficit.
Voters also are convinced that Schwarzenegger and the Legislature are more interested in confrontation than compromise when it comes to solving the state's problems. About one-third of those surveyed said the governor was negotiating in good faith, while 25 percent thought the Legislature was working hard to come to agreements with Schwarzenegger.
"If the governor and the Legislature attack each other, it's a lose-lose situation, since people lose their faith in government,'' Maviglio said. "The bottom line is that voters want the people they sent to Sacramento to get things done.''
But the most ominous news for Schwarzenegger could be his growing loss of support among the state's nonpartisan voters.
Voters would back the Legislature over the governor in a confrontation over important issues by 44 percent to 33 percent. While Democrats support the Legislature and Republicans line up behind the governor, nonpartisan voters now back the Legislature over Schwarzenegger 2 to 1: 49 percent to 24 percent.
"The governor has turned off nonpartisans enough to turn them toward the Legislature, which they don't particularly like,'' DiCamillo said. "This is a Democratic state, and nonpartisans are the swing voters. There are not enough Republicans to carry the day by themselves.''
The poll is based on a telephone survey of 954 California adults, including 711 registered voters, and was conducted June 13-19. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percent for all Californians and 3.8 percent for registered voters.
E-mail John Wildermuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.