Borne by a healthy economy and a more optimistic populace, Gov. Pete Wilson’s popularity has climbed to record levels as he prepares to leave office, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
But the boost has its limits: Even now, Wilson is less popular than a Democratic president who has been buffeted by scandal for eight months. And few in California would like Wilson to take the next step up the political ladder and run, once again, for the presidency.
About two-thirds of California voters said Wilson should not seek the White House in 2000, a figure that has not budged even as Wilson’s job approval ratings edge higher.
“Based on these numbers, he would have to think long and hard whether he can get the support, from voters or financially, that he would need,” said Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus.
Even Republicans cast a jaundiced eye on another Wilson presidential bid. Republican men were his strongest supporters, with 36% saying that Wilson should run. No other voter group--whether measured by ideology, race, income, education, gender, political persuasion or geographic base--gave more than 30% support to the notion of Wilson seeking the nomination in 2000.
Even those who said they voted for Wilson in 1994, when he defeated Democrat Kathleen Brown to win a second term, opposed a presidential bid by a 26-point margin, 56% to 30%.
Wilson, who has been trying to burnish his record in preparation for leaving office, has said through aides that he will begin to consider a presidential bid in earnest after his current bill-signing responsibilities ease.
Aides do not expect him to decide before he leaves office in January. Wilson made a brief and unsuccessful bid for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination.
The poll surveyed 1,651 Californians, including 1,270 registered voters, Sept. 12-17. The margin of sampling error is 3 points in either direction for registered voters.
The boost to Wilson comes as he concludes his second term in office, and his last, under the state’s term limits law. As long as he focuses on job approval ratings--the traditional means of measuring an incumbent’s popularity--the new numbers give the governor reason for optimism.
According to the poll, 55% of the state’s registered voters say that Wilson has handled his job well, the highest percentage ever recorded for Wilson in the Times Poll. In April, the last time the poll measured Wilson’s popularity, he was seen favorably by 51%--then a record. In the same time frame, his unfavorable rating has dropped from 42% to 37%.
Wilson’s tenure has been a time of fiscal feast and famine, of disaster and reconstruction, and his poll numbers have gyrated accordingly. His lowest rating among registered voters in the Times Poll was 29% approving and 62% disapproving, recorded in October 1992.
While his improvement in the poll has been dramatic, Wilson remains on comparatively rocky shoals in California. His gains have taken place almost completely among independent voters--an important voter bloc but not one that, by itself, provides a broad-based platform from which to seek higher office.
President Clinton, for example, still enjoys broader general support than does Wilson. Overall, 63% of California voters give him a positive job rating, even after months of investigation into his relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
The president has fallen from his 72% positive reading in April, but remains slightly above the 59% rating garnered in a Times poll last October. Then, as now, about three in 10 Californians disapproved of the way the president has handled his job.
(The polling began after the release of the voluminous report on Clinton by independent counsel Kenneth Starr. It concluded before the House Judiciary Committee released the four-hour videotape of his grand jury testimony on Monday.)
Compared to Clinton, Wilson gets more opposite-party support, pulling positive ratings from 43% of Democrats to Clinton’s 31% Republican support. But he is seen positively by fewer independents--72% to 47%--and has less home party support, with 74% among Republicans to Clinton’s 86% among Democrats.
The poll showed clearly that Wilson’s current increase in popularity rests on improvements in the state’s economy and the resulting sense of optimism among the state’s residents.
The percentage of Californians who believe the state is on the right track hit 61% in the poll, compared with 28% who said it is headed in the wrong direction. In May, the last time the state’s temperature was taken, 48% said California was on the right track, and 39% disagreed.
Among the now strong majority of optimistic voters, 64% gave Wilson a positive job rating and 31% reacted negatively to him. Tellingly, among those who thought the state is headed in the wrong direction, only 39% were positive to Wilson and 51% had an unfavorable reading.
Wilson’s strongest support occurred in natural Republican constituencies.
Among registered voters, the GOP strongholds of Southern California--outside of Los Angeles County--gave him a 60%-31% approval rating, compared with the negative 42%-52% rating in the insistently Democratic Bay Area. In Los Angeles County, 56% approved of Wilson and 34% disapproved.
His support rose among the wealthy--those making more than $60,000 backed him by a 59%-37% margin while those making less were a slighter 52% positive.
Although there was little gender gap--men and women supported Wilson in similar proportions--the governor’s strongest backing came from those most like him: Republican men.
Among Republican male voters, 79% gave Wilson good marks, compared with 70% of GOP women. Predictably, Democrats were far less supportive, with both men and women giving him a mere 43% favorable rating.
CANDIDATES DEBATE: In their third debate, Gray Davis and Dan Lungren struggled to find defining issues. A3
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Gauging the Governor
Gov. Pete Wilson’s job approval rating among registered voters:
Should Gov. Wilson seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2000?
Yes No Don’t know All Registered Voters 23% 63% 14% Democrats 18% 68% 14% Independents 26% 63% 11% Republicans 28% 57% 15%
Source: L.A. Times polls
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How the Poll Was Conducted
The Times Poll contacted 1,651 Californians, including 1,270 registered voters, by telephone Sept. 12-17. 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 entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education, region and registration. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample and for registered voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.