California voters … go figure

With a broad array of candidates and ballot measures facing us in November, the results will be a good barometer of what we really think

It’s a presidential-election year, a Sacramento legislative-battle year and a ballot-measure year, and that means it’s poll season. For me, dazed and confused in recent years by contradictory polls and the unpredictable political mutts known as California voters, I say, “Poll season, schmoll season.”

You may recall how the Los Angeles Times Poll bungled the recall issue badly last year, by adding too many extra black and Asian voters into its supposedly accurate “sample” of Californians and producing an embarrassing poll showing the recall was tied. In fact, it was well ahead.

You may recall various pollsters who blew it in 2000, saying Gray Davis would beat the stuffing out of inept challenger Bill Simon. Republican Simon lost only narrowly—in a state dominated by Democratic voters.

Californians are a mercurial bunch. We cannot be typecast no matter how much The New York Times wishes to dismiss us as the Left Coast, wacky or—worst of all—irrelevant.

There’s little doubt President George W. Bush will lose California on November 2, but the conventional wisdom abruptly ends after we agree California is not “in play” for president.

With Republicans aggressively fighting to recoup state legislative seats they have lost over the years, and with a dizzying array of ballot measures—from American Indian gaming to health care to election reform—we will soon find out how Californians really feel.

I’ll make just one prediction: California voters absolutely refuse to hew to the media’s biased preconceptions.

The hot topic of term limits is not on the ballot in November, but Californians’ current views on term limits will be a good litmus test of how voters feel about politics—and how they steer clear of many media assumptions.

A September 23 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California (one that rarely screws up) shows 65 percent of likely voters support term limits. That’s huge. About 36 percent of us think it might be good to let legislators have a few more years under term limits, while 59 percent think that won’t help.

I love this 65-percent number. It means voters are utterly ignoring the best efforts of the California political media to damn term limits. As I have said, disingenuous reporters hate California term limits because reporters must woo new legislators every eight years, working their butts off to win their cell-phone numbers and off-record comments. Another indicator of voters shrugging off media hype is a new poll showing that just 1 percent of Californians feel “abortion” is a key election issue. For years, California media have insisted it’s crucial.

In much the same way that California voters shrug off media hype on issues, they also resist mainstream media typecasting of them.

As Republican pollster Stephen Kinney points out, past polls have shown that “liberal” California voters support school prayer and oppose partial-birth abortion. Californians approved an anti-gay-marriage measure a few years ago, an opposition reaffirmed last spring in a Los Angeles Times Poll. We approved ending affirmative action in universities, and English immersion for immigrants. We demanded “three strikes and you’re out” after getting tired of career criminals on our streets.

On the other hand, support for a November measure approving stem-cell research in California is growing, despite a $3 billion price tag. We are heavily in favor of gun control, and we are avidly pro-environment. We’re so worried about health care that we’re open to “universal health care” run by government—which Californians broadly mistrust.

It’s enough to give a pundit a headache. The truth is that with major campaign ads yet to hit the airwaves on everything from forcing businesses to pay for worker health coverage to softening three-strikes to making the rich pay extra taxes, we haven’t a clue what voters will do on November 2. “They love to surprise us,” Kinney noted.

Mark Baldassare, chief pollster at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), sees Election Day as a fresh window into how Californians think these days. Refreshingly, Baldassare doesn’t pretend to know.

“What we’ve found is that on many social issues—abortion, guns, environment—Californians are pretty liberal. But on fiscal issues, they have the reputation of being pretty tight with taxes and government spending. And they are pretty conservative on crime issues, and on immigration issues have certainly tended to the conservative side. It gets very complex. … The truth is the ballot initiatives in California go well beyond the Democratic and Republican labels and let us look much more deeply into how Californians really feel. That’s what will happen on November 2.”

Are Californians feeling tempted to stick it to the rich—a classic liberal stand—or do they think extra taxes on the rich are class warfare, the classic conservative view? We’ll get a proxy answer when voters decide whether to back a poorly conceived plan to shore up mental-health services in California by charging a special new tax on millionaires.

Is it sinking in with Californians that small businesses are struggling to get back on their feet and cannot afford the $11 billion Proposition 72, which requires companies to pay health premiums for their workers? Or, do Californians think the economy is bustling enough, so that employers won’t flee to Nevada, Texas, Arizona, Oregon or other states without such an insurance mandate?

The Los Angeles Times Poll shows Proposition 72 enjoying 51-percent support, while the PPIC poll shows it stalled at 45-percent support. One in five voters has no idea what to think.

Baldassare and others note that although Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes Proposition 72 (because it will drive businesses to friendlier states) he has not spoken out aggressively. “We are still learning about the ways in which the governor is able to influence issues, so Proposition 72 and some of the others he has taken a stand on will give us an interesting addition to understanding his real reach,” said Baldassare.

Certain trends are emerging in these admittedly vague polls. One is that Californians appear to be getting fed up with gambling and the bad behavior by American Indian gaming tribes to which voters handed a lucrative slot-machine monopoly in 2000.

Proposition 70 would allow massive expansion of American Indian casinos on “Indian land.” A competing measure, Proposition 68, opens the door to letting race tracks compete for our slot-machine dollars. Private polls show both in trouble.

I’ve been arguing for support of Proposition 68, as a way to hand some competition to the arrogant tribes. But maybe voters have it right. According to the September 24 Times Poll, only 33 percent of Californians want to give racetracks a shot at competing for the lucrative slot machines. An even thinner 28 percent want to let tribes dramatically expand their casinos.

Mind you, we are going to be swamped soon with TV commercials about why we should vote for more gambling. With their posh Wall Street lawyers and Las Vegas partners, it would not surprise me if the tribes come up with wonderfully guilt-inducing ads to sway voters.

Nevertheless, California voters don’t like being twice burned. In 2000, we were promised (by the tribes and the often useless League of Women Voters) that giant casinos would rise only on “Indian land.” But the truth was that virtually anything could later be declared “Indian land” by politicians. As a result, we have faux reservations popping up in urban areas all over California. Two dozen tribes are “shopping” for new reservations. Expect similar subterfuge involving Proposition 70.

My burning issue is whether we go with the “open primary” by backing Proposition 62 or stay with the current closed primary (Proposition 60). Proposition 60 was stuck on the ballot by our lovely California Legislature, in hopes of diverting voters from the open primary.

Californians approved the open primary in 1996, allowing voters to “swing vote” in primaries. But the open primary horrified the Democratic and Republican parties of California. Open primaries would have forced these badly gridlocked parties to offer up pragmatic, problem-solving, moderate candidates who appealed to swing voters. God, the horror.

The two parties went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the 1996 open-primary law. Even so, the court gave California some very big hints about how to write an open-primary law the Supreme Court could live with. That substitute is on the November ballot.

Most voters haven’t got a clue about political insider issues like “open primaries,” but the issue dovetails nicely with fascinating data about voter registration showing up in private and public polls. The data show that California voters are increasingly signing up as “decline to state” and joining neither party.

Baldassare sees worries here for the Democratic Party. Large numbers of Latinos in some private polls, particularly Latinas, are rejecting the Democrats. Republican pollster Kinney said, “Latinas are not switching to Republican, but they are avoiding becoming Democrats. It’s interesting, isn’t it?”

Meanwhile, the Republican Party is making a big play to win back several legislative seats it has gradually lost, and thus strengthen Schwarzenegger’s hand in budget deliberations.

Politicians can’t stand all this uncertainty. Meanwhile, the media strive to pretend it’s all crystal clear to them. For me, we should celebrate the mystery that is California’s election season. The insiders who typecast Californians are continually proved wrong. And luckily for us, the voters are still clearly in charge.