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'Tale of two Californias': Coastal voters upbeat on economy, inland residents anxious

'Tale of two Californias': Coastal voters upbeat on economy, inland residents anxious
Most voters in counties along the coast in California were hopeful about their personal finances in the next few years. But in the interior, mainly the Central Valley and Inland Empire, less than half were hopeful and most were at least somewhat anxious. (David McNew / Getty Images)

With California's economy on the rebound, the state's voters are slightly more upbeat than voters nationwide about their potential for a prosperous future, but a sharp divide separates the optimism of upscale coastal regions from the anxiety of financially stressed inland areas, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

Most voters in counties along the coast were hopeful about their personal finances in the next few years. But in the interior, mainly the Central Valley and Inland Empire, less than half were hopeful and most were at least somewhat anxious.

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Optimism runs particularly strong in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the technology industry's explosive growth has spun off enormous wealth. Despite the region's much-discussed high cost of living, the share of people in the Bay Area who said they were "very hopeful" about their own economic futures was double what it was in the Central Valley.

But California is far from immune to the economic anxiety that has led many voters nationwide to resist mainstream candidates for president and instead support outsiders who vow sweeping change. Overall, 60% of California voters said they were dissatisfied with the state's economic situation.

Many are struggling to get by: 57% said they were barely maintaining their standard of living, and an additional 19% said they were falling behind financially.

Most striking, though, was the contrast in outlooks between coastal and inland California.

"This is a tale of two Californias," said USC Poll Director Dan Schnur, who heads the university's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

Voters in the Inland Empire were the most unhappy with the state of California's economy: 78% reported they were dissatisfied. Close behind was the Central Valley, where more than two-thirds of voters were displeased.

The Great Recession pounded some inland regions harder than coastal areas of California. But recent job growth in most inland areas has been strong, said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of the Los Angeles consulting firm Beacon Economics.

The lasting trouble, he said, is that most workers in inland regions are less educated, have fewer job skills and earn lower wages than those along the coast.

"We can talk about job growth all we want, but the real issue, I think, is going to be a function of education," Thornberg said. "This is not about regional economic conditions. This is about high-skill workers versus low-skill workers."

Indeed, 33% of voters with a college education said they were getting ahead financially, while just 13% of those with a high school degree or less said they were. Conversely, just 12% of college-educated voters said they were falling behind financially, but 25% of those with no more than a high school degree said they were sliding backward.

In coastal regions, 44% of voters were satisfied with California's economy; inland, just 30%.

Statewide, Republicans were among the least pleased with the condition of California's economy: Just 17% said they were satisfied, a view held by 54% of Democrats. Typically, supporters of the party out of power express less satisfaction with current conditions than do partisans of the majority party, and, indeed, the partisan gap in views of the state's economy did not correspond to any large partisan disparity in economic stability.

Democrats were only slightly more likely than Republicans to say they were getting ahead financially — about 1 in 5 Republicans and 1 in 4 Democrats. The overwhelming majority on both sides said they had enough money to maintain their standard of living or were getting ahead financially. About 1 in 5 — regardless of party affiliation — said they were falling behind financially. Self-identified independents were somewhat more likely than partisans to say they were falling behind.

Republicans constitute 28% of California's registered voters, Democrats 43.2%. Those who refuse to state a party preference constitute 23.6%.

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The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll was conducted online by SurveyMonkey. It surveyed 2,009 voters in California and 3,035 nationwide. It has an error estimate of plus or minus 3 percentage points for the statewide sample and 2.5 percentage points for the national sample.

The poll found that white voters in California were far more unhappy with the state's overall economic situation than were other groups; nearly two-thirds were dissatisfied. But barely 1 in 5 black, Latino and Asian voters said California's economy was in bad shape.

That greater satisfaction with economic conditions on the part of black and Latino voters is true even though only 16% of black and Latino voters said they were personally advancing economically. In comparison, 26% of white and Asian voters thought they were getting ahead financially.

One reason black and Latino voters may be more satisfied even though they rated their current economic conditions lower is that they were more likely to express hope about the future. Among black Californians, 62% said they were hopeful about their economic futures, and among Latinos, 57% said so. Among white Californians, only 48% said they were hopeful, while a majority, 52%, said they were anxious.

Regardless of race, women were more gloomy than men about the state's economy: Nearly two-thirds were dissatisfied, while only 56% of men were unhappy. Men also reported being a bit more hopeful than women about prospects for improving their personal finances.

A big source of anxiety for many California voters is globalization, the poll found. Just 23% said they thought it was making their personal financial situation easier; 42% thought it was making it harder.

Older voters were most resistant. About half of those 50 and older believed globalization was straining their finances. Only about a third of younger voters thought globalization was making their personal financial situation harder.

Voters viewed the technology revolution more favorably: 56% said tech's increasing importance to the economy had made their personal financial situation easier, and just 20% said it had made it harder.

The Inland Empire was the only region where fewer than half of voters saw the rise of tech as a positive force on their personal well-being.

Statewide, voters ages 50 to 64 also were less bullish about technology. One in four said its growing importance to the economy was making their financial situation harder. The larger number of middle-aged voters saying technology was making their situation harder contrasted both with younger voters, who face less of a challenge in adapting to new technologies, and older voters who have largely left the workforce.

As a whole, California voters were more positive about tech's influence than the rest of the country: 56% said its growing importance was making their personal financial situation easier; nationwide, just 47% felt that way.

The financial windfall that tech has produced for the Bay Area has given it a markedly more positive economic outlook than much of the rest of the state. While 33% of Bay Area voters said they were getting ahead financially, just 17% felt that way in the Central Valley, 18% in the Inland Empire, 20% in Los Angeles County, and 22% in Orange and San Diego counties.

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In most of the state, at least 1 in 5 voters said they were falling behind financially; in the Bay Area, just 14% said they were losing ground. Statewide, 57% said they had just enough money to maintain their standard of living; only 50% said that in the Bay Area. And while 19% of voters statewide were very hopeful that their personal finances would improve in the next few years, it was 24% in the Bay Area.

"Because you're looking at a sector that is enjoying such great economic success," Schnur said, "it's not surprising that the people who live there are much more optimistic about their economic prospects going forward."

Twitter: @finneganLAT

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