Californians take generally positive view of healthcare reform

California voters have a generally positive view of the massive federal healthcare package signed into law by President Obama last month, providing a potential boost statewide to the Democrats who pushed it through Congress, according to a new Times/USC poll.

Republican leaders, campaigning against the bill, have warned Democrats that their votes would weigh them down in November's elections. Although that may be true in more conservative parts of the country, the opposite appears to be developing here.

By a margin of 46% to 29%, California voters surveyed said they would be more likely to vote for a politician who had supported the health bill. And just over half the voters polled said they believed the country would be better off because of the bill.

On another hot-button issue, immigration, the poll found a continued sharp polarization between Democrats and Republicans, but also a shift of voter sentiment away from proposals to take away all social services, including access to schools and emergency medical treatment, from illegal residents.

Large majorities in the poll supported two alternative proposals: one that would couple stronger enforcement at the border with a temporary worker program and one that would combine stronger border enforcement with a path to eventual citizenship for illegal residents who perform community service, pay back taxes and learn English.

The support for both a guest-worker program and a citizenship option were notable in part because they come at a time when California voters remain deeply pessimistic about the state's economy.

More than a third of those polled said they expect the state's economy to continue to worsen, while only about a quarter said they thought it had begun to recover. Another third said they thought the economy had hit bottom but not yet started to grow. Those views are more negative than what surveys recently found in several other states.

Asked if the state was headed in the right direction, 82% of voters said it was not. Far fewer, 55%, said the same of the country overall.

The Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll surveyed 1,515 registered voters from March 23 to 30. It was conducted by a bipartisan team of polling companies based in the Washington, D.C., area: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic firm, and American Viewpoint, a Republican firm. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

On the health bill, 35% of those polled said that if their senator or U.S. representative had voted for the legislation, they would be "much more likely" to support them in November. Eleven percent said they would be "somewhat more likely" to vote that way.

On the other side, 20% said they would be "much less likely" and 9% said "somewhat less likely" to support that lawmaker. Nineteen percent said the health vote would have no effect on their support, and 5% said they did not know.

Californians view the healthcare package "much more favorably than what we are finding nationally," said Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. "I don't think we will see numbers like this in other states."

In addition to support from Democrats, the healthcare bill appeared to have backing among nonpartisan voters. By a margin of 48% to 23%, those who registered without stating a political party said they would be more likely to support a representative or senator who voted yes.

In follow-up interviews, many respondents who were optimistic about the healthcare package said they had yet to grasp its particulars but thought it better than the status quo.

"I'm still learning a lot of the details," said Stephanie Martinez, 33, a stay-at-home mother in East Los Angeles. "From the things I do know and understand, I think people who don't have insurance and can't afford it will be able to get something."

Pollster Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint said support for the bill is probably playing a role in the more positive view that California voters have about the direction of the country than the state, especially as Sacramento is paralyzed by fiscal crisis. "They see the federal government as having an achievement in terms of healthcare passage," she said.

David Sutcliff, a 37-year-old pharmacy technician in Orange, was among the poll respondents who expressed that view, saying that he was pleased to see momentum on getting more people insured.

Asked if he understood the mechanics of the bill, he said: "Not at all." But, he said, "I just know we have an issue with healthcare. To see something being done about it makes me happy."

Like many others polled, Sutcliff supported the new legislation even as he doubted that he or his family will see benefits from it soon. "It'll be years before anything happens," he said.

In the poll, 41% said they believed they or their families would "see benefits from this healthcare reform bill in the next few years," while 47% said they do not expect that.

The skepticism may be rooted in part in the large majority of registered voters who already have some form of health benefits. Many of those who have employer-provided health insurance or Medicare are not expected to see substantial improvements in their coverage as a result of the new law.

In the survey, 11% of the respondents said they had no form of health coverage, including 14% of those ages 18 to 64. A recent survey by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research that looked at all Californians -- not just registered voters -- found that 24% of those 64 and younger lacked health coverage.

Those who believe the country will be worse off as a result of the healthcare overhaul were in the minority, but their opposition was intense. Most of the opponents said they believe the bill will leave the country "much worse off."

"This will cost of us millions of dollars in the future from mismanagement," said Lenora Johnson, 55, of Magalia, a Central Valley town north of Sacramento. "The government can't take care of Social Security or Medicare or anything else. Why should this be any better?"

Amid constant government budget cuts, overcrowded school classrooms and continued corporate downsizing, California voters' mood about the economy was predictably dour. Fewer than one in five of those surveyed said they are better off financially than last year.

Eugene Almirol of Lakewood, a 61-year-old fiber optics technician, was among the minority whose finances have improved. But he said that was only because his employer had thinned the payroll, leaving overtime work for him.

"As people retire or leave the company, they are not being replaced," he said. "I just happen to be in a situation where I am getting overtime. But I have friends who are suffering. Things are getting worse."

Despite the financial struggles, hostility toward illegal immigrants -- who are often blamed for taking jobs away from citizens and straining government services -- appears to be lower than in some previous recessions.

A large group of voters, 45%, supports taking away all social services and access to schools for those here illegally.

But Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former Republican political consultant, said support for such measures has been much higher in previous years.

For example, Proposition 187, which would have denied schooling to illegal immigrant children, passed in 1994 with a 59% majority.

The latest poll numbers reflect "a potentially significant move away from that stringent a crackdown," Schnur said.

Immigration has been an issue in the GOP gubernatorial primary, with state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner pushing a plan to deny services to illegal residents and his opponent, Meg Whitman, favoring a guest-worker program. Among registered Republicans, 61% said they support denying social services and schooling to illegal residents, and 75% said they supported the guest-worker approach.

Among all registered voters, 70% supported the guest-worker option. A slightly smaller 67% supported creating a path to citizenship for those who pay fines and back taxes and learn English.

Majorities of Republicans continue to say that immigration -- legal and illegal -- is a net negative for the state. Majorities of Democrats say that both are a net positive.

There is also notable racial divide when it comes to opinions on immigration.

Blacks overwhelmingly say that immigration has been a net negative. Whites are evenly split on immigration overall, while Latinos responded overwhelmingly that immigration both legal and illegal has been good for the state.

evan.halper@latimes.com

For the full text of poll questions and detailed methodology, go to latimes.com/poll.

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