Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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California, by the Numbers

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The big buzz today (ok, not a big surprise, but a pretty big thud nonetheless) is the big thumbs-down that is the latest Field Poll — a pox on all their political houses, if you will. 

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s approval rating? A personal-worst 22% (and a 70% disapproval rating). 

The State Legislature’s approval rating? 16% — sadly, that’s up 3 points (the last time the Legislature cracked the 20% barrier was two summers ago). 

The public’s faith in California? 79% say the state’s on the “wrong track” (about the same as in 2003 and 1994, both of which were good years for conservatives in California). 

Two of these numbers are easy to understand. The state’s stuck with double-digit unemployment and an economic rebound will occur slower than in other states. That, in part, explains the wrong-track number. 

Meanwhile, the state budget process once again has gone into overtime and lawmakers seemed more interested in trivial matters, like securing Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch, than more vexing woes like schools and roads. 

But Arnold’s tanking numbers? That’s a little more complicated. 

I did a little digging into Schwarzenegger’s Field history. It turns out that this governor, despite his celebrity status and unique path to office, is little difference from his gray (in name and style) predecessor. 

Let’s start with Arnold’s numbers, beginning with the 2003 recall race. In early August and September 2003, when the thought of a Governor Schwarzenegger is a shaky concept, his numbers show the uncertainty: a 43-40 approve/disapprove in August; a 46-48 split in late September. But right before the recall when it’s becoming clear that Schwarzenegger will win, his numbers surf the wave: 52-41 favorable/unfavorable a week before the vote. 

In his honeymoon phase, Schwarzenegger get the benefit of the doubt: 56% approve, only 26% disapprove (btw, the Legislature at this time is the opposite: 26% approve; 56% disapprove). That number tops out at 65% by May 2004. But give voters a chance to bail on Arnold and they do just that. Come September 2005, Schwarzenegger was leading a special election that the electorate didn’t want. His ratings reflect that: 36% approve; 52% disapprove. 

Schwarzenegger’s numbers eventually recover — by March 2007, on the heels of a landslide re-election his approval rating is back up to 60%. But the governor’s surfing a bigger wave: the same Field Poll shows that, for the first time during Arnold’s time in office, a majority of Californians believe the state’s on the right track. flash forward to July 2010: only 13% of Californians think the state’s going in the right direction; only 22% approve of their governor. 

The funny thing is we’ve seen this movie before — starring . . . Gray Davis.

Check out this chart, from the Sacramento Bee, comparing approval ratings of recent California governors. Davis’ high-water mark is 62% approval in February 2000 — the same year Californians’ “right track” sentiments averaged 58%. In other words, he too surfed the wave. Davis, like Schwarzenegger, bottomed out at 22% in August 2003. The “right track” then: only 16%. 

Polk: one & done


How Schwarzenegger ended up with the same poll numbers as Davis should spark a lot of interesting talk not only about how he ran his administration, but how he handled his celebrity status. 

Was it inevitable that, as a second-term governor in a slow economy, Arnold one day would be held in the same contempt as a less-flashy career politician like Davis? 

Does this support the idea that a celebrity should only enter politics if they plan to take the James K. Polk approach: one term and out? 

For a California governor it’s a cautionary tale: surf the wave and get out of the water . . . before the undertow gets you.


Written by Bill Whalen

July 14, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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