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.
In the Republican race for governor, former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman was leading former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell 35% to 27%, with 10% of Republican primary voters siding with state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. But, on a separate question, two-thirds of voters said they had no impression of Whitman or Campbell, and three-quarters said they knew little about Poizner.
Whitman has said that her campaign will be powered in part by women, but so far she is doing better among men -- 40% of men back her, compared with 30% of women.
The results at this early stage in part reflect spending -- Whitman has bombarded the airwaves with ads for months, while Campbell and Poizner have mostly operated under the radar. "Meg's purse strings obviously made a difference," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who helped craft the survey. But, he cautioned, "Right now, this race is wide open."
The GOP Senate race was even more wide open, with 7 in 10 voters saying they knew too little to have an impression about Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, or DeVore, a conservative assemblyman from Irvine.
In a head-to-head matchup, DeVore and Fiorina each won the support of 27% of Republican primary voters. But given the fresh nature of the race -- Fiorina announced her candidacy last week -- neither candidate is yet dominating in areas they have tried to stake out.
Fiorina has gone after women voters, but, like Whitman, was running better among men.
DeVore has hammered Fiorina as being a tool of party moderates, but she was doing about as well as he among his conservative targets.
On the Democratic side, unofficial gubernatorial candidate Brown -- governor from 1975 to '83, then a presidential candidate, Oakland mayor and attorney general -- was benefiting both from his well-known name and the race's atmospherics thus far.
Brown's favorability margin was the best in the poll aside from Obama -- the percentage of voters who liked him was 17 points higher than those who did not. He was particularly appreciated by older Californians, who are among those most likely to vote.
Asked whether Brown, has "the experience and knowledge to lead California" or, rather, is "a career politician whose ideas are old," a slight plurality of voters opted for experience. Even in inland California, the locale least friendly to Brown, almost 4 in 10 voters chose experience.
Similarly, when asked if they prefer a candidate who has experience in business or one with a political background, voters were split. That result, analysts said, suggests that California is not yet willing to purge all politicians, as it did in 2003 with the election of actor Schwarzenegger.
"It doesn't feel like a change election," said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who helped craft the survey. "Jerry Brown has the experience they need -- they are looking for someone who can manage."
The poll underscored why Brown's only announced opponent, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom left the race in late October, while the survey was in the field. According to the poll, almost 3 in 5 Californians didn't know enough about Newsom to form an impression. Of those who did, an almost identical percentage liked as disliked him.
Like Brown, Boxer has long been a polarizing figure in the state. In this survey, a slightly higher percentage of voters looked kindly on her than on Brown, but a substantially larger percentage of voters disliked her. At this stage of the Senate race, her strong suits appear to be the passion of her supporters, and the broader voter insistence in supporting Obama.
While voters in Tuesday's gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey did not respond to Obama's pleas that they elect Democrats, Boxer may well be able to make the argument that as a senator she will actually be voting for the agenda that voters say they support. And so far, she is making that argument in a state where Obama retains much of his allure among voters.
"The biggest question for Barbara Boxer and her opponent is whether Barack Obama's coattails are longer for senators than they are for governors," said USC's Schnur.