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THE TIMES POLL : Public Delivers Stinging Assessment of Governor

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Just as he revs up his bid for reelection in 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson has come in for a strong slap across the face from the California electorate: According to a Los Angeles Times poll, the governor is dramatically unpopular and his Republican Party continues to be in deep trouble.

Only 30% of Californians approved of the way Wilson is handling the governorship, a level at which he has foundered since at least September of last year. Even among Republicans, fully half disapprove of his management of the state.

Animosity toward the governor, furthermore, is fueling the political dreams of potential Democratic challengers for his job.

While the Times survey showed that vast numbers of Californians do not know enough about either state Treasurer Kathleen Brown or Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi to critique their standing, each swamps Wilson in hypothetical general election matchups.

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If the election were held today, Brown would defeat the incumbent governor by 22 points, and Garamendi would best him by 17 points. Only in a contest with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who has been urged by some to contest the race, would Wilson be in the running. The survey showed the Speaker and Wilson in a dead heat.

“Many of the votes for Kathleen Brown and Garamendi are strictly anti-Wilson votes at this point,” said John Brennan, director of the Times Poll.

For Wilson and his fellow Republicans, the soured state economy has been a huge stumbling block, with most Californians unhappy about the present and future status of the economy.

Perhaps most troubling for Republicans trying to reverse their 1992 beating at the hands of Democrats may be that Californians still roundly believe Democrats are best equipped to handle the state’s problems.

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That trend has developed since mid-1991, and the polling now shows that 43% of California’s registered voters believe Democrats are better at handling problems. Only 30% said that of Republicans.

The Times Poll, from March 20-22, interviewed 1,294 Californians, including 1,032 registered voters. It chronicled the depths of despair felt by most Californians about the state’s economic standing.

Almost three of every four people--72%--said the state was “seriously off on the wrong track” and only 18% said things were moving in the “right direction.” Asked which were the most pressing problems facing the state, close to half offered a variation on the economic theme: 25% said that unemployment was the stiffest challenge before California and 19% said it was simply “the economy.”

A traditional focus of California concern--crime--was far behind, cited as the chief problem by only 10% of those polled.

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In addition, 94% of Californians polled said they believe that the state is in a recession--and 60% characterized the downturn as a “serious” one. Similarly, 93% described the state of the economy as “shaky” rather than “robust.”

The future inspired no great outpouring of optimism. Twice as many people felt the economy would be worse in three months than believed it would be better--31% to 16%. Fifty-one percent said that they believed things would be the same.

Wilson’s job rating was just a statistically insignificant two points above his all-time low of 28% recorded last October. And his unpopularity appears to have little to do with politics, for there was no major electoral force in the governor’s corner. Even among registered Republicans, only 44% felt he was doing a good job; only 38% of conservatives shared that view.

The governor did fare better than the perennially unpopular California Legislature. According to the Times Poll, only 20% of adults approved and a whopping 64% disapproved of the way the deliberative body is handling its job. Even among Democrats, whose partisans control the Legislature, disapproval ran to 65%.

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The job approval ratings of the two newly elected Democratic senators were more positive than negative, although large segments of the population did not know much about how the senators are handling their new responsibilities.

Dianne Feinstein, who has projected a far more visible image since Election Day, was viewed approvingly by 42% of Californians, with 23% disapproving and a third saying that they did not know enough about her to make a decision.

Barbara Boxer’s comparatively low profile was reflected in more lackluster poll numbers, which showed 30% approving her handling of the job thus far, 23% disapproving and 47% saying they did not know enough about her to decide.

The poll findings suggest that Wilson enters the organizational stage of the 1994 governor’s race with serious problems, as even his own advisers have acknowledged. The stakes show most starkly in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with Democrats who are now considering or being asked to consider a bid for their party’s nomination.

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Against Wilson, state Treasurer Brown would win, 53% to 31%, among registered voters, the poll showed, and she would even carry 25% of the GOP vote. She would also win among both women and men, and among liberals and those who consider themselves middle-of-the-road politically. Wilson would win conservatives, but only by a 50%-33% margin.

The findings for Insurance Commissioner Garamendi are strikingly similar. He, too, would win among both men and women, liberals and moderates. Conservatives would fall Wilson’s way, by a 51%-34% margin among registered voters. Overall, Garamendi held a 51%-34% margin over the incumbent governor.

Wilson could find cause for comfort in a race against Assembly Speaker Brown, however--a race about which Brown has entertained thoughts, but apparently not seriously. Overall, Wilson would edge Willie Brown by a 44%-42% margin, essentially a dead heat once the poll’s 4-point margin of error is considered.

The high tide of discontent with Wilson does mask a significant problem for the potential Democratic competitors: Among the three, only Speaker Brown is well known even in his own party and he is viewed unfavorably by nearly twice the number who support him.

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Three out of five registered voters--including more than half the Democrats--said they did not know enough about Kathleen Brown to have formed an impression of her. Of those who did, however, 31% reported a favorable view and only 9% were unfavorably disposed.

Garamendi was slightly better known, with 44% of registered voters and 40% of Democrats saying they did not know enough about him. The views of those who did were slightly more polarized, with 38% giving him a favorable nod and 16% reflecting unfavorably.

Speaker Brown was known to all but 22% of registered voters, a reflection of his high-profile years in office. But those years also have made him a lightning rod for criticism, and the poll showed that 28% felt favorably toward him while 48% were disposed against him.

In the potential Democratic primary race for governor, the poll shows that Kathleen Brown benefits from the “gender gap” that also helped Feinstein and Boxer with their primary victories in 1992. Women, who last June made up 54% of the Democratic primary vote, steadfastly stood in her corner.

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Under conditions that would have all three potential candidates in the mix, the treasurer carried 28% to Garamendi’s 25% and the Speaker’s 15%, with the remainder undecided. All vote totals were among registered Democrats.

In the far more probable circumstance of a two-way race between Kathleen Brown and Garamendi, the treasurer’s lead broadened to 38%-31%. She narrowly lost the vote of men, but more than made up for it by a 15-point margin among women. She also carried party liberals and moderates, while Garamendi appealed to conservatives.

Dauntingly, as far as Republicans are concerned, the poll demonstrated dramatically that Democrats still hold strong political advantages in the state where four months ago they overturned 28 years of tradition to win the state for their presidential candidate.

Yet not all of the political signposts were pointing the Democrats’ way. When asked, for example, who or what was responsible for the state’s continuing budget problems, attention focused squarely on the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

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According to the poll, 25% said the Legislature was at fault and another 4% cited Speaker Brown specifically. But Wilson did not escape blame--18% pointed to him, suggesting that the governor’s efforts to shift responsibility to his political foes has not worked conclusively.

Even though the Democrats were handed much of the blame, Californians somewhat paradoxically also suggested that they could better deliver the solutions to the state budget crisis. More than a third--34%--said that Democrats were “doing a better job” finding budgetary solutions, a label that 26% pinned on Wilson. Another 22% said neither party deserved praise for coming to grips with the budget crisis.

How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll interviewed 1,294 adults statewide by telephone from March 20 to 22. The sample included 1,032 registered voters, of whom 496 are Democrats and 369 Republicans. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random-digit dialing techniques were used to ensure that both listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. Results were weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and household size. Interviewing was conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of sampling error for the total sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin is somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

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THE TIMES POLL

Californians on Politics

Californians think U.S. plans to close military bases hit the state unfairly hard, but President Clinton maintains a reasonably good job approval rating nonetheless. The President is more popular than Gov. Pete Wilson, either new U.S. senator or the state Legislature. And the Democrats continue to outpoll the GOP as the party better suited to handle the state’s problems, an advantage they have held since late 1991. Do you approve or disapprove of the job being done by:

PRES. GOV. U.S. SEN. U.S. SEN. STATE CLINTON WILSON FEINSTEIN BOXER LEGISLATURE Approve 51% 30% 42% 30% 20% Disapprove 29% 59% 23% 23% 64% Don’t know 20% 11% 35% 47% 16%

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Which party do you think can do a better job handling the problems California faces today? (Responses given by registered voters.)

MARCH OCT. SEPT. MAY APRIL DEC. MAY 1993 1992 1992 1992 1992 1991 1991 Democrats 43% 46% 40% 41% 39% 37% 31% Republicans 30% 32% 28% 28% 32% 31% 30% Neither 14% 11% 17% 16% 14% 16% 18% Both equally 5% 3% 3% 4% 5% 6% 7% Don’t know 8% 8% 12% 11% 10% 10% 14%

Do you think California is being asked to bear an unfairly large share of the proposed military base closings and reductions or do you think California is being asked to bear its fair share? Being treated unfairly: 60% Bearing fair share: 30% Don’t know: 10% SOURCE: A Los Angeles Times poll of 1,294 adults including 1,032 registered voters statewide from March 20-22. Margin of error for the entire sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points; the sampling error for registered voters is plus or minus 4 percentage points.


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