Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Throw the Bums Out...Again

Yes, it's true. All those screaming pundits seem to be on to something: the electorate is in a damn cranky mood.

Can you blame them? Either they don't have jobs, or they know or love someone who doesn't. The economy is stumbling along like a toddler who got into the medicine cabinet. Ominous headlines warn of a looming global financial collapse. Volcanoes are erupting. Oil rigs are blowing up. The weather is weird.

All of which leaves us with an anxious electorate and a political landscape that's as unstable as that Icelandic mountain none of us can pronounce. The Tea Party candidate beat the Republican establishment candidate in the Kentucky Senate primary - but the liberal Democrat upset faux Democrat Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, and the Democratic candidate beat back the GOP to take John Murtha's House seat there, so it hardly looks like a conservative tide is sweeping the nation.

No, I think it's authenticity that voters are seeking this year. They're tired of evangelical Christian congressmen who get caught having affairs with their abstinence advisers, "small government" Republicans who add billions to the federal deficit, and Democrats who promise big change but are afraid to do more than tinker at the margins.

All of which helps explain tonight's latest poll numbers from California. Pollster Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the nonpartisan, widely respected Public Policy Institute of California, has just published a survey that covers the major races in next month's primary. Here's some of what he found:

  • Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman's support in the Republican primary for governor has plummeted, from 61% in March to just 38% now. Her lead over Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner has fallen from 61-11 then, to 38-29 today.

  • Carly Fiorina and Tom Campbell remain locked in a dead heat, with Fiorina leading 25-23 for the Republican Senate nomination. But conservative Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, as predicted in this space, is surging, and is now within shouting distance at 16%. That leaves a whopping 36% of the voters undecided.

  • As Poizner attacks Whitman, and she fights back, and the Republican Senate contenders squabble, the unopposed Democratic candidates are the beneficiaries. Jerry Brown has pulled back ahead of Whitman in a hypothetical November matchup, beating her 42-37 after trailing by five points in the last poll. He wallops Poizner, 45-32. Meanwhile, Barbara Boxer has regained the lead as well. She beats Campbell 46-40; she leads Fiorina 48-39; and she's ahead of DeVore 50-39.

  • The voters are overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 14, which would change California's primary system to a "top two" open primary. Sixty percent say they'll vote yes, and only 27% oppose it. This measure would bring a dramatic shift from the way we choose candidates now, essentially abandoning the age-old primary and general election system in favor of a June general election and a November runoff. But the voters are in favor of anything that will shake up the status quo and change what they see as a badly broken system.

  • Voters are split on what to do about California's budget crisis, whether to lower the two-thirds majority vote to pass a budget to a simple majority, whether to raise taxes or cut programs. But they do know that they don't approve of what's going on in Sacramento. Only 23% approve of Governor Schwarzenegger's job performance, and only 16% give the state legislature a good grade. Three-quarters want lawmakers to adopt pay-as-you-go budgeting, develop a two-year spending plan, and forfeit their pay when they don't get the budget done on time.

  • And finally, the fight over the November ballot measure to legalize and tax marijuana is going to be a doozy. Voters are split right down the middle: 49% love it and 48% hate it. Predictably, Democrats are solidly in favor while most Republicans oppose the idea. The Bay Area is the only part of the state where there's a majority in favor. This is shaping up as a really, um, high profile campaign. Democrats are counting on a high turnout among young voters (or maybe that's just a turnout of high voters) passionate about this issue to help push Boxer and Brown over the top in November. But would you really want to pin your hopes on the motivation of pot smokers? They could just as easily go sit in the corner or make an emergency run to the 7-11 as show up at the polls.

Now Baldassare recognizes that part of the dramatic erosion in Whitman's support is due to Poizner's attack ads, blasting the former eBay CEO for her ties to Goldman Sachs and her spotty voting record. His red meat rhetoric on immigration is hitting home. Less educated voters are turning from Whitman to Poizner, although curiously, so are the richer ones. Whitman had the airwaves to herself for months, and only in the last few weeks has Poizner begun to counter the record-smashing $68 million of personal wealth Whitman has poured into her campaign. But she's also suffering from the anti-establishment sentiment out there that is affecting all frontrunners, not just incumbents. Whitman has been on the air for so long, so often, that she's become the de facto nominee. Perhaps she peaked too soon - leaving an opening for the late-spending Poizner to mount an insurgency. He and DeVore both hope to ride that Tea Party tide to upsets in June.

It's still a long shot, for both of them. Whitman is still ahead by nine points, which would be a comfortable margin of victory. DeVore is still in third place, with two better-funded candidates to leapfrog. But with one-third or more of the voters still scratching their heads over whom to choose...and shaking their heads over the state of our country...both races remain, in Baldassare's words, "volatile and unpredictable." The voters know they want to send a message; they're still searching for the right messengers.

Click here to hear my entire 11-minute interview with Mark Baldassare about his poll results.

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