Voters upset about his decision to run for President have issued California Gov. Pete Wilson a stiff personal rebuke, sending his popularity ratings to near-record low levels and leaving him far behind both Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and President Clinton in hypothetical election matchups, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.
By striking margins, voters believe that Wilson has not justified abandoning his pledge to serve out his second term, and they consider him a man without deep convictions and prone to waffling on the issues, the poll found. Only 23% of Californians--including 30% of Republicans--believe he should seek the presidency.
The only good news for Wilson is that neither Dole nor Clinton is surging in popularity. As it has nationally, Dole’s support in California is sagging, although he continues to dominate the field for the Republican nomination.
Clinton has maintained an even keel, and would defeat the major announced Republican candidates for President in the general election. But he has much to fear in the imposing profile of former Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell, whose shadow over the race is likely to increase during his upcoming national book tour.
If Powell, who is considering a presidential bid, ran as a Republican he would narrowly defeat Clinton in California, 47% to 41%, the poll found. Powell runs particularly well among independent voters and whites so sought-after in the general election.
According to the poll, California’s voters are undercutting one of the chief premises of Wilson’s campaign: that he could deliver the state for Republicans and deny it to Clinton, who must win California if he is to gain a second term.
Yet, as Times Poll Director John Brennan cautioned, Wilson is renowned for being underestimated. Just last year, he fought back from a poll deficit of more than 20 points to defeat Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Brown.
“It’s bad emotionally for the campaign and bad for the fund-raising, but I don’t look at these numbers and say that his candidacy is dead,” said Brennan, adding, “Still, it makes it hard to say, ‘We’ve done wonderful things in California’ when people express so much animosity toward him.”
The Times poll, conducted September 7-10, questioned 1,343 California residents, including 1,065 registered voters. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is three percentage points in either direction.
Wilson’s low standing is most apparent in his falling job-approval ratings. While 47% approved of how he was serving as governor last March, only 33% voice the same approval now.
Last March, 44% disapproved of Wilson’s handling of his job, and now 60%--three out of every five people--disapprove of him. That is statistically the same as Wilson’s all-time low of 61%, recorded in October, 1992.
The reversal in voter impressions of Wilson also was apparent in the hypothetical general election matchup with Clinton.
In March, Clinton beat Wilson 51% to 42%--a nine-point margin. Now, Clinton holds a commanding 19-point lead over Wilson, 57% to 38%, the poll found.
In other hypothetical general election matchups, Clinton has reversed Dole’s former advantage and now leads him in California, 53% to 42%. In March, Dole led 48% to 45%.
Clinton also eased into a broader lead over another potential Republican contender, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. He led Gramm by 20 points in March, and now has extended that lead to 57% to 31%, according to the poll.
In contrast to Wilson’s plummeting job-approval rating, Clinton’s has stabilized. Fifty-two percent of Californians said they approve of how Clinton is handling the presidency, statistically the same as the 50% who approved last March. Both numbers represent an improvement from the low of 44% approval that Clinton earned in September, 1994.
Brennan said a key to Clinton’s relative strength against Wilson and Dole was his hold on moderate voters.
“At this point, Clinton is holding on to non-liberal Democrats at a greater rate than Dole or Wilson is holding on to non-conservative Republicans,” Brennan said.
But that is also Powell’s strength, and the poll showed that he alone is able to defeat Clinton in California because he can capture the middle of the road and even a stronger portion of Democrats.
When Dole runs against Clinton, for example, the Kansas senator commandeers only 16% of Democrats and 36% of independents. Similarly, Wilson pulls the votes of 15% of Democrats and 33% of independents.
Powell, in contrast, wins the votes of 24% of Democrats and a sweeping 55% of independents.
And he runs equally strong among Republicans--74% of them would vote for Powell over Clinton, the same percentage that would side with Dole over the President. Wilson pulled a slightly smaller 68% of the Republican vote in the head-to-head match-ups.
The poll also determined that Powell would have much more influence over the race as a third-party candidate than another potential independent candidate, Texas businessman Ross Perot.
Perot’s strength remains essentially unchanged from 1992. In the current poll, his entrance into the race would replicate the returns of that election year, with Clinton winning 44%, Dole 32% and Perot 20%.
Yet while Powell would not win as an independent candidate, he could clearly have an effect on the race, pulling votes away from Republican Dole. Still, Clinton would win, with 39% to Powell’s 30% and Dole’s 24%.
“Perot is a wash,” said Brennan. “Powell, on the other hand, is taking much more from the Republicans.”
The race for the Republican nomination in California, which will come to a head in the state’s March 26 primary, illustrates two truisms about the Republican field in the nation at large: Dole is slipping, but no one else is well-positioned to seize the momentum.
When asked who they would like to see as the Republican nominee for President, 18% said Dole, down from the 27% who offered his name last March. Wilson’s standing did not change, going from 6% to 7%. Another 6% cited Powell, 5% gave the name of former television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and 4% listed Gramm.
Voters were then presented with a list of the announced Republican candidates for President and asked which one they would support in the California primary.
Thirty-five percent said Dole, more than double the 17% who sided with Wilson. Eight percent said Gramm and another 7% voted for Buchanan.
The decisions are clearly preliminary, however; not only is the primary six months away, but in addition, only 22% said they were “certain” to remain loyal to their candidate.
If Wilson is to take advantage of that uncertainty, he has his work cut out for him. The poll demonstrated that California voters have adopted a decidedly skeptical view toward their governor.
Asked if they had a favorable impression of him--a question different from one asking how Wilson had handled his job--the same slide in popularity became apparent. In October, 1994, voter impressions of Wilson were narrowly favorable, 49% to 45% unfavorable. Now that is strongly reversed, with only 35% having a favorable impression of him and 59% an unfavorable one.
The dominant reason voters liked Wilson was his stance against illegal immigration. When asked why they felt favorably toward him, 28% of registered voters cited that issue, while 16% said they “just like him” and 11% said they shared his viewpoint. Those were the only answers in double digits.
When those who dislike Wilson were asked why, 18% cited his support of 1994’s Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from all state services except emergency health care. Almost the same percentage--17%--said they disliked Wilson because he broke his promises, and 11% said that he had flip-flopped on issues.
Voter dismay with Wilson’s beliefs was underscored with answers to other questions. Among registered voters, 47% said that Wilson is not a man with deep convictions, and only 35% believed he is. Even among Republicans, 37% said they thought Wilson had no deep convictions.
Voters endorsed another damning description when 59% said they think Wilson “waffles” on the issues. Only 29% said he did not. A plurality of all voter groups--Republicans, independents, Democrats and those of all ideological stripes--shared that assessment.
Additionally, three of every four voters said that Wilson has not justified his decision to run for President just months after he pledged to serve out his entire second term.
An indication of the depth of the antipathy toward Wilson at this point in the race is that opposition to him was strong despite the fact that most voters feel more favorably toward him on a host of issues on which he has centered his presidential campaign.
Fifty-eight percent of registered voters, for example, said they felt more favorable toward Wilson because of his stance on welfare, which includes cutting off more aid to women who have additional children while on welfare, requiring teen-agers who have children to live with their parents while they finish school, and cutting the overall welfare benefit. Only 25% said they were less favorable to him because of those positions.
But, when asked whether they would vote for Clinton or Wilson, fully 40% of those who favored Wilson on welfare said they would vote for Clinton.
Similarly, 59% said they felt more favorably to Wilson because of his positions on crime, including support of a “three-strikes” law and of non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials. Still, 42% of those people said they would vote for Clinton over Wilson.
On the third of Wilson’s major issues--illegal immigration--52% said they felt better about Wilson because of his views but more than a third of those sided with Clinton.
Wilson appeared to get at least some benefit from all of his major issues except affirmative action, which was a draw. Thirty-eight percent felt better about Wilson because of his opposition to affirmative action, and 34% felt worse about him.
The uncertainty about Wilson’s positions on affirmative action did not lead to uncertainty about the device that he hopes will gut the social policy: the “California civil rights initiative,” which is being prepared for the November, 1996, ballot and would outlaw affirmative action programs.
The initiative is supported by 65% of Californians and opposed by 25%--about the same as March’s 66% to 26% findings.
Another anomaly about Wilson’s standing in this poll is that the governor does not appear to be suffering because of the struggling economy--although Californians are clear in their negative assessment of the state’s finances.
Twenty-seven percent said the state is going in the right direction, down slightly from March, and 64% said things were on the wrong track, a substantial hike from the 55% who felt that way in the spring.
Asked whether the state was in a recession, 22% said no and 73% said yes, among them 29% who characterized the recession as “serious.” All of those numbers were nearly the same as March numbers.
More negativity was apparent when Californians were asked whether they thought unemployment would be worse in three months or better, a question that is an arbiter of future feelings about the economy. Twenty-seven percent said it would be worse, the largest percentage since October, 1993. Last March, 22% said unemployment would be worse in three months.
Yet concerns about the economy did not seem to be at the root of Wilson’s troubles.
When asked if they support Wilson or Clinton, for example, 37% of those who believe the state is not in a recession sided with Wilson. If the economy was dictating Wilson’s fate, fewer of those who think the state is in a serious recession should support the governor. But exactly the same percentage--37%--of those who felt the state was in a bad recession said they would vote for Wilson over Clinton.
Since springtime, when Wilson’s presidential campaign was derailed by the candidate’s voice problems, his strategists have argued that he would gain traction in the summer, after his official announcement was made and he was able to explain his views.
The formal announcement came last month but in California, at least for now, the poll indicates that there is little traction to be had.
“The hoopla from the announcement, if anything, has made things worse,” said Brennan. “Since March, movement has been against him.”
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How They Might Do
The latest Times California poll shows Gov. Pete Wilson trailing badly in a hypothetical presidential matchup against President Clinton. But Clinton would lose narrowly to retired Gen. Colin Powell if Powell were the GOP nominee.
When pitted against Clinton:
* Wilson loses independents, moderates and male voters to the president.
* The important elderly voter bloc also deserts the governor.
* And in traditionally Republican southern California, the two men run even.
In contrast, Powell beats Clinton:
* Among independents and men
* And also carries white voters, including white men.
* The affluent also back Powell, but those 65 and over stick with the President.
Source: Los Angeles Times Poll
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Should Wilson Run?
Californians have major qualms about Gov. Pete Wilson’s decision to seek the presidency. Most reject his explanations for running and many think less of him because of the decision. Wilson’s job score has slipped drastically since March, and he continues to trail Kansas Bob Dole when Republicans are asked their 1996 presidential choice. Californians continue to support the “civil rights initiative.”
Q. Wilson says he changed his mind about running for President because he will be able to do much more for the people of California as President. Do you think that explanation justifies Wilson’s decision to change his mind and run for the presidency or not?
Not justified: 73%
Don’t know: 5%
Q. Has Wilson’s decision to run for President in 1996 made you feel more or less favorable toward him?
More favorable: 7%
Less favorable: 48%
Makes no difference: 43%
Don’t know: 2%
Wilson job approval rating:
3/95 NOW Approve 47% 33% disapprove 44% 60% Don’t know 9% 7%
Q. Why do you have a favorable impression of Pete Wilson? (Top five responses among registered voters shown)
Those With Favorable Impression
His views on legal immigration/Supports Prop. 187: 28%
Nothing in particular/Just like him: 16%
Has views are like mine/Agree with philosophy: 11%
Doing best he can/He’s trying: 9%
Strong leader: 7%
Q. Why do you have an unfavorable impression of Wilson? (Top five responses among registered voters)
Those With Unfavorable Impression
His views on legal immigration/Supports Prop. 187: 18%
He promised to remain in office for 4 years/Should not be running for President: 17%
He flip-flops on the issues/Changes his mind on many issues: 11%
His attitudes fosters racism: 6%
Policies hurt education, cut back education: 7%
Republican primary preferences: (among registered Republicans)
Haven’t heard enough: 4%
Don’t know: 18%
Q. Do you favor or oppose the “California civil rights initiative”? (Among registered voters)
3/95 NOW Favor 66% 65% Oppose 26% 25% Don’t know 8% 9%
Note: Numbers may not add to 100% because not all answer categories are displayed.
Source: L.A. Times Poll
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How the Poll Was Conducted
The Times Poll contacted 1,343 California adults, including 1,065 registered voters, by telephone Sept. 7 through Sept. 10. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and regional voter registration. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors, such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.