California Democrats are facing risk of voter turnoff

In a poll released Wednesday, the Public Policy Institute of California found that Obama's approval rating had dropped 10 points since July and now is at 51% among California adults, with disapproval at 45%.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
Capitol Journal

President Obama’s popularity is falling even in California, a deep-blue state he has won twice by landslides. It means Democratic politicians should worry about suffering fatal falls in the polling booths next November.

That’s not necessarily because voters turned off by the president will take it out on Democratic congressional and legislative candidates, although some of that could happen. More important, Democratic voters may be so disenchanted with Washington and politics generally that they don’t turn out to cast ballots at all.

And there’s little on the horizon in California to excite them about voting. A gubernatorial race between Gov. Jerry Brown and some obscure Republican won’t be a draw.


A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll last month found widespread ambivalence about the Democratic governor. More than half of those surveyed approved of his job performance, but less than a third said they were inclined to reelect him.

Of course, Republicans are staring at their own turnout dilemma. There’s no sign of a strong gubernatorial candidate at the top of the ticket to attract GOP voters to the polls.

But small-turnout elections tend to benefit Republicans, whose voters habitually cast ballots more consistently. Just look at some recent special elections to fill legislative vacancies, where turnouts have been dismal and Republicans have fared better than expected. They picked up one state Senate seat in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

“How enthusiastic will the voters who supported the president in 2012 be about voting in 2014?” asks Mark Baldassare, president and pollster of the Public Policy Institute of California. “From a Democratic perspective, it raises some concerns.

“People feel things are not getting done in Washington. Clearly they’re upset with Congress. But they’re not happy with the way the president is exercising leadership, either. For Democrats, this might not only mean trouble in congressional races, but in legislative races.”

Baldassare noted that not only will there be no presidential race next year, but in California there’ll be no U.S. Senate contest, either. “What’s the Democratic base going to get excited about?”


In a poll released Wednesday, the policy institute found that Obama’s approval rating had dropped 10 points since July and now is at 51% among California adults, with disapproval at 45%. That matches a record low from 2011. Among likely voters, slightly more disapprove of his performance than approve.

But Congress? A scant 10% of likely voters approve of how it’s working.

The Field Poll released a similar survey Tuesday, showing 51% approval and 43% disapproval of Obama’s job performance among a third group, registered voters — an eight-point increase in negativity since July. It’s his worst showing in two years.

Blame the embarrassing rollout and broken promises of the president’s signature program, Obamacare. But the pollsters also cite two other things that have upset Obama’s Democratic base: His failure to achieve immigration reform. And his National Security Agency’s spying on American citizens and foreign leaders.

Obama’s rollout of the Affordable Care Act website was “seen as inept,” says Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo.

And although California developed its own website that has been relatively successful, the national media spotlight has been focused on the federal fiasco. “It creates a lot of anxiety” among Californians, Baldassare says. “People think ‘somehow it’s going to affect me. What else isn’t going to go well?’ It’s a lack of confidence more than anything.”

Then there was the president’s unequivocal but broken promise that people who liked their current insurance plan could keep it. In California, 1 million policy holders are having their policies canceled.


“Him saying one thing and it not being true, for lack of another word, is about his honesty,” says Democratic pollster and strategist Ben Tulchin.

And although Obamacare may ultimately get fixed, the Democratic pol adds, “your opportunity to make a first impression is limited. All this makes him look like he’s not very engaged. It raises questions about his leadership.”

The failure on immigration reform has particularly upset Latinos, DiCamillo says. Their disapproval of Obama has risen 16 points since February in the Field Poll.

“He says he’s a champion of reform but nothing is changing,” the pollster says. Latinos “see him as ineffectual. He’s not delivering on his promises. That’s what people want—action.”

Of course, if Obama and Democrats keep losing support by not delivering on immigration reform, why should Republicans ever allow it to be enacted? They certainly won’t just because it’s the right thing to do.

As for the NSA “snooping into Americans’ lives,” DiCamillo says, “the president’s liberal constituency is really in shock.”


“If this continues,” the pollster adds, “it could reduce the likelihood of Obama’s supporters turning out next year. And that’s going to affect Democrats up and down the ballot.”

Especially at stake in Sacramento is the Democrats’ supermajority control of the Legislature, which allows them to pass legislation, such as tax increases, that require a two-thirds vote.

So how do Democrats generate a compelling reason for their voters to cast ballots?

There’s talk of creating another ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. That’s seen as an attraction for young people.

Also, if a pension reform measure makes it to the ballot, that could scare public-employee unions and drive their members to the polls.

But Democrats fear an effort to repeal a law allowing transgender high school students to use the bathrooms of their choice. That’s seen as a huge GOP draw.

We’re still 11 months from that election. But California Democrats shouldn’t be waiting around for Obama to right his ship. They’d better be charting their own course.