Voters More Diverse... and Confused... Than Ever

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Getty/Kevork Djansezian

In politics, there's often a danger in relying too much on conventional wisdom. And a just released statewide poll on the November election confirms that danger, as it seems California's electorate is starting to look and act differently than expected.

In a nutshell: white voters and partisans lost, the generation gap is growing, and a wide swath of voters seem ready for change... though admitting they're also confused.

There are lots of interesting nuggets in tonight's survey from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, a survey that seems to shine a bright light on just how unsettled things are in state politics.

(The full survey is here.)

And the poll's release comes just as the final votes are counted in counties across California. Those totals show that Jerry Brown won a third term as governor over his main rival Meg Whitman by almost 1.3 million votes, a 13.1% victory that mirrors the Democratic/Republican registration split in the state. Those raw totals are reflected spot on in PPIC's new poll, which shows that won convincingly with independents (56%-38%) and women (59%-39%) and captured an astounding 75% of the Latino vote.

That last stat merits special mention, as the poll shows that white voters in California are no longer the dominant sector of the electorate; white voters actually chose Whitman over Brown, 49%-47%. The poll also shows the tremendous voting power of the less affluent in this election; Brown won by 11 points among those who make $40,000 to $80,000 a year, and won by a whopping 37 points among those who make less than $40,000 a year. Whitman came closer among those making $80k-plus, losing to the Democratic nominee by only two points.

Similar numbers, though somewhat smaller, are found in the race for the U.S. Senate. Again, white voters narrowly picked the losing candidate -- Republican Carly Fiorina -- while Democrat Barbara Boxer cruised to reelection with women (58%-40%), Latinos (62%-35%) and the less affluent.

Whether those numbers hold up in future elections will be the real thing to watch; for years, the state's electorate has been dominated by older, whiter, wealthier Californians (a point made very clear by the folks at PPIC in their 2006 in-depth examination of the state's voters). If, in fact, the electorate is finally starting to look more like California's population, the impact on the political landscape will be fascinating to watch (and may raise further questions about the viability of California's Republican party).

KQED/John Myers

But lest Governor-elect Brown think he's riding a wave of optimism into the state Capitol (and he doesn't seem to be under any such illusions), the new poll shows Californians have a deep distrust of what happens here in Sacramento. Only 14% of those who voted in November told PPIC that they can trust state government to do what's right most or all of the time, while 68% said they trust Sacramento pols only some of the time... and 16% voluntarily told the pollsters they can never trust state government. That total distrust rises to 21% among independent voters.

Also tough for Brown and the incoming Legislature (which convenes on Monday): 65% say they think state government wastes "a lot" of money. Even 51% of Democrats hold this view (GOP 82%, independents 68%); that probably helps explain the popularity of the 'waste, fraud, and abuse' mantra in budget fixes... but it also will make Brown's job much tougher should he instead propose budget fixes that center on deep program cuts, new taxes, or both.

The other divide the poll finds, one we've heard about before, is generational -- best seen in the split over Proposition 19's call to legalize marijuana. 62% of voters 18-34 voted yes, while 58% of those in both the 35-54 and 55+ groups voted no. And perhaps more telling, given the previous discussion of how large a presence Latino voters were in this election: 59% of Latinos say they oppose all efforts to legalize pot.

The new poll also seems to show an awful lot of confusion, and perhaps growing unhappiness, with California's 99-year-old initiative process. While most voters surveyed still like the initiative process, PPIC found 42% of voters wanting "major changes" in the system -- though exactly what they want remains somewhat unclear.

Perhaps the best example out of this poll of the concern, and outright confusion, that initiatives create can be seen in the data on Proposition 24. The initiative, which would have rescinded business tax breaks included in the 2009 budget negotiations, lost by more than 1.5 million votes on Election Day. And while some voters told PPIC's survey team their votes were based either on desires to make corporations pay their desire to help small businesses or close tax loopholes, a full 22% of those who voted against Prop 24 said they aren't sure why they voted no.

Think about that for a moment. More than one of every five votes against Prop 24 was for no firmly explainable reason.

There's much more to the survey, data that political junkies will no doubt sift through for weeks to come. But if some of these trends hold, the conventional wisdom of politicians, political consultants, and political journalists in California may need to be recalibrated... in some cases, a lot.

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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.
  • flicka47

    After a quick glance at the survey, I’d say confused doesn’t begin to cover it. Depending on the question(like economic,or direction state is going) well over 65% of the state no matter what the demographics or party affiliation think the current “direction” is wrong. Why vote for the status quo if that’s the case?

  • http:/ Momlee

    The one thing I’m confused about is why Californians are so stupid. Keep voting for the status quo and the liberals and unions will will own our country and especially our state. We are falling off a cliff but nobody cares. When you finally wake up we will be another country. Can’t wait around…I will be moving shortly. All of you have ruined this beautiful state. Just wait…your health care will prove to be a disaster…our kids will be illerate…taxes will go thru the roof….you can all have your solar panels….and your gas prices will be $10 a gallon…shame on you.