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Despite some nightmares, poll finds voters still California Dreamin'

With high housing costs, bad traffic and failing schools, is the curtain falling on the California Dream?

It has beckoned for generations. To California came the Spanish missionaries, the Gold Rush buccaneers, the Dust Bowl refugees, émigrés from the East and the South and other lands, entrepreneurs and hippies and assembly line laborers and farmworkers, all seeking refuge in this quirky and lyrically named place.

The power of dreams and desperation shielded the eyes from myriad hardships, and insults too: California — the land of fruits and nuts, emphasis on nuts. Take off the blinders and its current difficulties snap into relief: traffic and crowds, a faltering education system and astonishing housing costs, a sputtering job market and high taxes.

But is the curtain falling on the California Dream? Not by a longshot, according to the people living it. To most of them, a tradeoff has been made: Suffer if you must for a place in the sun.

Those are the findings of a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. When pollsters asked California voters whether they would rather live here or somewhere else, more than seven in 10 picked California. Asked whether the state's upside outweighed its problems, they said yes, and by a lot.

The loyalists are people such as Kellie White of Simi Valley, California born and bred, here for all of her 45 years but for three spent out of state — in Minnesota, for a job, a sabbatical that gave her an appreciation for sunny California. Yes there are challenges, she says, the cost of housing for all but the wealthy chief among them. But, still.

"I'm here for the duration," she said, laughing, and then explained: "My whole family is here. It's family and that's the main thing. It's just — I don't know, I love it here."

She cites the state's environmental bent and its politics, and, more than that, its people.

"The people are more accepting and giving," she said. "In California, they move more quickly to include people."

What keeps Californians reasonably happy across a divergent land of blue-hued coastlines and dusty agricultural acreage, palm trees and Sequoias, mock Med mini-mansions and lookalike stucco ranch homes? Weather, family, beaches, culture, diversity and the state's accommodating lifestyle.

Residents are wholly clear-eyed and discontented about its negatives.

They rue those home prices, unbearable college costs, the endless stream of cars. They see little reason to think that they will fare better than past generations and are only slightly more upbeat about their children's odds of being better off than they are. Yet for now, all that seems baked into the calculation that the good carries more weight.

"There's a fundamental tension among Californians, where living in the state has essentially become a binary choice between their finances and their lifestyle," said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the Democratic half of the bipartisan polling team that conducted the survey for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and The Times.

"And at the end of the day," he added, "I think what they're saying is, 'It's not great here — we've got a ways to go here — but I'd sure as heck rather be here than anywhere else.'"

After years of saying the state was headed in the wrong direction, voters have flipped and now see it in positive terms more often than not. The percentage of people saying California is on the right track — 45% — is three times what it was when Gov. Jerry Brown was elected in 2010. Brown's popularity has zoomed upward and — startlingly — even the state's long-maligned Legislature is now seen in a far more positive light.

Much of California shares the same general views, more or less. Yet rumbling beneath the surface like a rupturing fault is a dramatic schism: between old California — generally more white, more Republican, more conservative — and new California — more Latino and Asian, more Democratic and more liberal. The dissatisfaction among those dominant in old California rose almost as a cry of protest against the state's rapid change.

"In many ways this is a snapshot of an emerging California colliding with a leaving California — not moving to Texas but leaving the planet," said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant and fellow at USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

The partisan split was clear when it came to whether voters had considered living elsewhere. Among Republicans, 34% said they had thought "a lot" about leaving; only 14% of Democrats said the same. When those who had thought a lot or "some" about leaving were tallied, 48% of Republicans were in that camp, with only 30% of Democrats.

Asked if they would rather live in California or somewhere else, only 20% of Democrats said they preferred elsewhere; almost twice that percentage — 38% — of Republicans favored some other place.

The differences were equally obvious when voters were asked whether California remained one of the best states in which to live and work or whether it had fallen from those heights. Among those who called themselves conservative, 62% said the state was no longer top of the heap, while 71% of liberals felt California remained exceptional.

The dichotomy held through a broad range of questions. Asked whether the state's economy was improving, worse or the same, 52% of conservatives and 53% of Republicans said it was worse; 61% of liberals and 52% of Democrats said it was better.

Dave Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican half of the polling team, noted that there were many areas of agreement among partisans, particularly when it came to things no one wants — like taxes.

Almost six in 10 Democrats and eight in 10 Republicans said the state ranked poorly when it came to taxes. Their disapproval was almost identical when it came to traffic, the affordability of housing and the difficulty in paying for college.

"There are partisan differences but it's not entirely partisan," Kanevsky said.

Indeed, there also were limited divides inside the state's moderate-to-liberal wing and its ascendant voter groups. Usually upbeat Latinos seemed more dour about some of their prospects, while Californians of Asian heritage exuded optimism.

To be sure, much of the time they agreed. While a quarter of white voters said they had thought a lot about leaving California, only 17% of Latinos and 14% of Asians were pondering a move. But their views separated when it came to the economy.

Among Asians, 56% said the economy was improving, 32% said it wasn't. Among Latinos, it was 42% to 41%. Asked whether California had changed for better or worse lately, two-thirds of Asians said it was better, a view held by only 52% of Latinos. (Whites were evenly split.)

The poll suggests that a booming economy would salve many voters' concerns — but that has traditionally meant higher home prices, which would put more pressure on the state's financially stressed. Those ranks include people such as Cori Redstone, lured here from Utah two years ago to study for a graduate arts degree.

She thought California would be "this progressive paradise" and ran smack into exorbitant housing prices, what she sees as a talk-more-than-action posture by government and a Democratic governor who refused to outlaw fracking, despite concerns about its environmental impact.

Still, she is considering sticking around. A decision rests, she said, "on the job I find and depending on my ability to afford housing."

"I like the attitude. I love the people of California. I love the creative communities here," she said. "The arts scene is vibrant and alive and exciting — there's just so much creatively that's happening. I can't imagine finding another more vibrant place."

The poll, conducted by telephone from Feb. 18 to 24, surveyed 1,505 registered voters in California. The sampling error is 2.7 percentage points in either direction overall, and slightly higher for subgroups.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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