More Left, More Right... Bigger Gap

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The second and final day of then-versus-now comparisons by the venerable Field Poll makes it easy to see how the seeds of discontent and disagreement have flowered among partisan voters in California these last three decades.

In short: Democrats are more liberal, Republicans are more conservative, and hot button issues have little chance of striking consensus. And some of the only unanimity is found in pessimism.

Yesterday, Field's analysis told us a little about how the demographics of voters have changed. Today's report examines a few controversial issues and how polls showed Democrats, Republicans, and independents in the 1970s and today.

The wider gap these days between the Dems and the Reeps probably explains the Field findings of a shift in general support among Californians on issues like same sex marriage and abortion rights. Because Democrats outnumber Republicans, the increased acceptance of such ideas helps push the state towards its national 'blue' reputation.

On same sex marriage, a 1977 Field survey found support among all voters at 31% and opposition at 63%. This year (last fall's election results notwithstanding), 49% of respondents said they approve of gay marriage, while 44% said they disapprove. And on this issue, we see the wider gap in full view: Democratic support went from 29% to 64% over the decades while GOP support fell from 30% to 23%.

A wider gap, too, now exists on the issue of legal abortion. In 1975, 52% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans approved of abortion rights -- a modest five point gap. Now, 82% of Democrats support those rights compared to just 55% of Republicans... a 27 point gap.

More evidence, too, on the issue of the right to die (described by Field as "euthanasia") among Californians. While 63% of overall respondents supported those rights in 1975, 69% do so now. Not much change until, again, you look at the two major parties: Democratic support has jumped from 60% (1975) to 80% (2009), while GOP support has actually dropped from 66% (1975) to 59% (2009).

As the gap on these issues grows wider, one wonders where the gap lies on other issues... and whether two parties being driven by their most vocal (and radical) supporters will ever again find consensus on such personal issues. The report also finds a gap, though not as big, on the issue of the death penalty (both party's loyalists support it, but Dems more tepidly than they did in the '70s).

All that being said, there are two subjects where Field found most everyone in agreement, and you won't be surprised. On the landmark property tax initiative Proposition 13, voter approval is almost exactly the same as it was in 1978, the year the measure was ratified (though interestingly, more Dems and Reeps now identified as "no opinion" than did three decades ago). 57% of all respondents supported Prop 13 both in 1978 and now; both points in time found slightly less than half of Democrats and about seven in ten Republicans in support.

And lastly, everyone's down on California as, in Field's words, "one of the best places" to live. 76% of those surveyed agreed with that statement in 1977; now, it's just 41%. Democratic support for the sentiment fell by 28 points through the years (73% to 45%). Republicans... down in the dumps... support has fallen 50 points for that sunny feeling about the Golden State (80% to a dismal 30%).

The Field reports come at an interesting time. The state's finances are worse than ever, and consensus on pocketbook issues is the needle in the haystack in Sacramento. This chronological glimpse of social issues kind of completes the portrait of California as a state where 'agree to disagree' has become the norm on just about everything.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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