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The undertow in a new California poll: economic and political unease

The undertow in a new California poll: economic and political unease
President Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown, seen in a 2014 drought meeting, remain popular figures in California, according to a new poll. But Californians are concerned about the economy and politics. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

One look at a new statewide poll published Wednesday night suggests that all's swell in California, with the governor's approval rating 22 points above his disapproval numbers and President Obama reasserting his position as a convincingly popular politician. Even the long-derided Legislature had a relatively high favorability rating, with 4 in 10 Californians approving the way it's doing its job.

But contradictions rest at the core of the survey, conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California. They make it clear that a persistent unease suffuses the state on both the economic and political fronts.

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By about 2 to 1, Californians believe the state is split between haves and have-nots, with slightly more people putting themselves in the latter category. Just fewer than half of Californians believe that the state will experience good economic times in the next year, but 41% say the economy will suffer tough times.

Politically, Californians may like their state and federal leaders but turn sour on the rest. Six in 10 say there are too many measures on state ballots -- probably because almost 9 in 10 believe ballot measures are controlled by "special interests."

Almost 6 in 10 Californians think that the Republican and Democratic parties offer inadequate choices and that a third major party is needed. That essentially matches the high point of dismay seen in a poll taken in October 2014. More than a third of California Republicans wish they had more choices in the presidential contest, an almost unbelievable figure considering the Republican presidential field includes more than a dozen candidates from which to choose. (Forty-five percent of Democrats feel the same way, but their party has only three major candidates.)

"I think that what we continue to see is some large segment of the population that has feelings of economic uncertainty and economic unease and maybe income insecurity along the way too," said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president. "There's a broad recognition that there's wealth and poverty in the state, and a sense of unease."

The mood has improved since the depths of the Great Recession, but it is notable, he said, that concerns still surface among a "large segment" of the population.

In some ways, the 61% approval rating for Obama and the 51% approval rating for Gov. Jerry Brown feel something like outliers, given the negative or, at best, discouraged view from many Californians.

In addition to the prediction by 4 in 10 Californians of bad economic times ahead, the areas of interest on upcoming ballots offer a demonstration of where concerns lie.

Sixty-three percent of Californians said that a bond to finance schools and community colleges was "very important" to them, and another 25% said it was "somewhat" important. Support for schools is a baseline demand when state residents feel under economic threat and want better for their children.

Fifty-seven percent of Californians said a measure to raise the minimum wage was very important to them, with another 23% saying it was somewhat important. Interest in other potential ballot measures fell far short of those marks.

It is clear, however, that the current political system is not seen as capable of allaying Californians' concerns. Republicans are widely unpopular — 61% had a negative view of the party — and Democrats scarcely fare better — only 51% of Californians had a favorable impression.

A decade ago, 48% of Californians thought the two major parties sufficiently served Americans. That figure dropped to 33% in the new PPIC poll. Support for a third major party rose 11 points, to 57%, in the same time frame.

Defiance toward established parties has defined the presidential contest this year, as non-politicians Donald Trump and Ben Carson have ridden far higher in most polls than veteran politicians. Even the experienced politicians in the race are stiff-arming Washington, casting themselves as candidates who are not beholden to their party establishment.

So far in California, such dissatisfaction hasn't offered any lift at the ballot box. Despite a rise in nonpartisan voters, a 2014 attempt by Dan Schnur, the director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, to run an independent campaign for secretary of state foundered badly. He finished a distant fourth in the June primary.

But the political dissatisfaction may grow if it is fed by economic dissatisfaction. And in that area, the mood was bleak.

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Sixty-seven percent of Californians said the state was cleaved between its haves and have-nots. Only 29% disagreed. Forty percent of Californians said they were among the haves, and a slightly larger 44% said they were among the have-nots.

The separation point between the two seems to be a salary of $40,000 a year, a level that  could make for lean living in a state with high housing and transportation costs. Of those making $80,000 or more, 65% felt they were among the haves. Of those making between $40,000 and $80,000, 45% felt they were in the haves, less than a majority but a larger percentage than those feeling economically aggrieved. But among those making $40,000 or less, 63% felt they were among the have-nots and only 24% felt they were among the haves.

"The issue of income inequality and income security is going to be there for a while," Baldassare said.

It is no accident, then, that the subject has been dominant in the 2016 campaign for president. Expect it to be dominant as well if the currently dormant 2016 race for U.S. Senate picks up, and in the next big contest after that: the 2018 race for governor.

For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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