Against that grim backdrop, next year's political contests loom as potentially volatile, but Democrats start out holding the upper hand, the poll found. President Obama retains his popularity in a state that gave him a landslide victory one year ago, with 60% approving of his tenure as president. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican struggling in the last year of his term, won the support of only a third of voters.
There was little confidence that the next governor, whoever he or she may be, would be able to successfully battle California's problems. Voters were split over whether the winning candidate would be able to bring about "real change." More than half of voters said that California's problems are long-term in nature and will not ease substantially when the national economy recovers.
"I just feel like we are spinning our wheels," said Tracey Blair, a mother of two from Mar Vista who described herself in a follow-up interview as an independent-minded Democrat. "I don't feel like it's going anywhere at the moment. . . . It's a feeling of -- like we've peaked."
Asked about next year's election for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Barbara Boxer, nearly 3 in 5 voters said they "want a senator who will mostly support" Obama's policies. .
Few voters said they knew enough to have an opinion about either of the Republicans running to challenge Boxer, Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore. Voters, however, have a favorable view of Boxer, about in line with where she has stood before her three prior victories in Senate races.
The findings come from a new Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll. The survey, based on interviews of 1,500 registered voters from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3, was conducted by two prominent national pollsters, the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies. The results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of +/- 2.6 percentage points.
All told, the survey underscored the differences within California's borders, and between California and the rest of the nation.
Despite its Democratic reputation, California continues to be riven by political fault lines. Coastal voters hew more toward the state's left-leaning reputation, while inland voters have reliably conservative tendencies. Young and old often hold diametrically opposing views on some issues and candidates. The major parties are heatedly polarized..
Notably, in this season of political outrage, with its boisterous town halls and bipartisan cat-calls on television and the Internet, Californians did not seem particularly angry. Rather, they demonstrated a sense of civic dejection.
"You get angry when you think you can make a difference and make change," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "But the predominant mood of the electorate in California seems to be 'What's the use?' "
As has been the case in other polls in the last year, voters had markedly different views of state and federal political figures.
Asked, for example, what emotion they associated with Obama, 43% of California voters said "hope," 18% said "disappointment" and 17% said "pride." The results were lopsidedly partisan. Among Democrats, 56% said "hope," 26% said "pride" and only 9% said "disappointment"; among Republicans 31% said "disappointment," 22% said "anxiety" and 21% said "anger."
Views about Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature were far more negative. Forty-five percent said they were disappointed in the governor, a percentage that was similar among Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan voters. Even for the much-derided Legislature, the predominant emotion cited by voters was disappointment; only half as many described themselves as angry.
In their overall pessimism, voters drew similar distinctions between the nation and the state.
Asked whether California was headed in the right direction or was on the wrong track, only 14% said the state was moving in the right direction. That was the lowest such finding since October 1992, when an equal percentage expressed dismay. It was statistically equivalent to the 17% level reached just before the 2003 recall swept out Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and installed Schwarzenegger. Altogether, 4 in 5 Californians surveyed said they felt the state was headed down the wrong track -- slightly worse than in 2003.
Views of the country as whole were still negative, but somewhat more cheery -- 35% of those polled felt the country was on the right track, and 55% said it was going awry.
Under normal circumstances, the state numbers would suggest tremendous upheaval in next year's elections, but for two circumstances: In the governor's race, there is no incumbent on whom voters can vent their upset. And in the Senate race, the incumbent is not only fairly popular, but is buttressed by voter regard for Obama. Moreover, on the Republican side, the contestants are thus far enigmas to many voters.