Public Opinion Watch

California Screamin’

Field Research Corporation poll of 649 California registered voters, released September 11, 2003 (conducted September 3–7, 2003)
Edison Media Research (EMR) exit poll of 4,214 California voters, released October 8, 2003 (conducted October 7, 2003)
Los Angeles Times (LAT) exit poll of 5,205 California voters, released October 8, 2003 (conducted October 7, 2003)

Schwarzenegger may be governor, but California remains California and incumbents are in trouble. That’s the message Public Opinion Watch takes away from the results of California’s recall election.

It’s hard to read this election as anything other than a manifestation of anti-incumbent feeling. The voters in California detested Gray Davis and were thoroughly dissatisfied at the situation the state was in. So they voted for the recall. They didn’t see Bustamante as representing a change from Davis’s administration and business as usual. So they took a chance on Schwarzenegger and voted for him.

Does this mean that Republicans are suddenly competitive in California in 2004? Hardly. Indeed, you could argue that the only shot they had in California in 2004 was if Davis had remained in office and they could have gotten voters to vote Republican in protest against the state’s incumbent. But now he’s gone and California voters will be free to focus their dissatisfaction on the nation’s incumbent—George W. Bush.

And how do they feel about Bush? They are not happy campers. In a recent Field poll, Bush received a 46 percent job approval rating from California’s voters, including a 42 percent rating among nonpartisan/independent voters and a 19 percent (!) rating among Democratic voters. Since Republican hopes in California in 2004 must rest on cutting into the Democratic partisan vote and doing well among independents, as both the recall and Schwarzenegger did, this does not bode well for GOP chances.

Or consider the economy, by all accounts a central cause of California voters’ desire to toss out Gray Davis. California voters currently give Bush a dreadful 39 percent approval rating on the economy—and that includes pathetic ratings of just 26 percent among independents and 16 percent among Democrats!

These are the voters who supposedly can be induced to vote for Bush in 2004? Pardon Public Opinion Watch for being just a wee bit skeptical. Especially since his other job ratings (except on reducing the terrorist threat) are equally bad. These include 46 percent on foreign affairs, 44 percent on taxes, 40 percent on the situation in Iraq, 39 percent on the environment, 36 percent on health care, 34 percent on energy policy, 34 percent on reducing unemployment, 33 percent on the federal budget deficit, 29 percent on his treatment of matters relating to California, and 28 percent on Medicare.

But what if this election demobilized the Democratic base and mobilized many new Republican voters? Assuming this pattern carries over to 2004, a big assumption, wouldn’t that help Republicans in 2004? Public Opinion Watch is not persuaded that this turnout-centered interpretation of Tuesday’s results is correct.

First of all, there were few new voters. Only 3 or 4 percent of Tuesday’s voters were first-time voters, depending on which exit poll (EMR or LAT) you look at.

Second, exit polls do not give clear indications of Democratic demobilization. It is true that the EMR exit poll has Democrats at just 39 percent of voters, compared to Republicans at 38 percent, in a state where Democrats have a 44 percent to 35 percent registration advantage. But the LAT exit poll has different figures—46 percent Democratic and 39 percent Republican—which are not far off the overall registration figures. The LAT poll also has figures available from 2002 (46 percent Democratic/40 percent Republican) and 1998 (48 percent Democratic/39 percent Republican), the last two off-year elections, and they do not indicate much change in Democratic or Republican turnout.

Thus, the voters who turned out don’t seem to have changed much, but they certainly were in a mood to "throw the bum out." And in 2004, the bum in question is likely to be President Bush.

The Demographics of Clarkism

David W. Moore, "Clark Leads Democratic Candidates," Gallup Organization, October 10, 2003

In the latest Gallup poll, Wesley Clark once again is the top choice of Democratic registered voters around the nation. Clark garners 22 percent support, compared to Dean at 15 percent, Kerry and Lieberman at 12 percent, and Gephardt at 10 percent.

These results are similar to an earlier Gallup poll of September 19–21, so Gallup was able to combine the data from the two polls and run demographic analyses of the different candidates’ bases of support. These analyses are quite revealing, especially when comparing Clark and Dean.

While Clark receives more support than Dean among both men and women, his margin over Dean among women is just three points (16 percent to 13 percent), but an impressive twelve points among men (29 percent to 17 percent). He also beats Dean in every region of the country, but especially in the south (25 percent to 8 percent). Also intriguing is how well he does among low income voters (those earning less than $20,000 a year), clobbering Dean by 26 percent to 5 percent. In fact, Clark bests Dean in every income group up to $75,000. Above $75,000, Dean edges Clark, 26 percent to 25 percent.

In terms of ideology, Dean beats Clark among liberals, 24 percent to 18 percent, but Clark wins moderates by 24 percent to 11 percent and conservatives by 23 percent to 7 percent. The general picture, then, is that Clark does especially well, relative to Dean, among the very groups where Democrats have been having the most problems. That suggests to Public Opinion Watch that the emerging Clark candidacy deserves very serious consideration indeed.

It’s the Education, Stupid

Jim VandeHei,"Education Law May Hurt Bush: No Child Left Behind’s Funding Problems Could Be ’04 Liability," Washington Post, October 13, 2003

Public Opinion Watch says: Thank you, Washington Post, for putting above the fold what Public Opinion Watch has been saying for a long time: Bush and the Republicans are acutely vulnerable on the education issue and it’s likely to be a liability for them in 2004.

A brief recap. Democrats historically have dominated the education issue but Bush narrowed the gap during the 2000 campaign with his compassionate conservative rhetoric and his promise to improve education by raising standards. With the bipartisan passage of the No Child Left Behind education reform act on January 8, 2002, the gap was essentially erased.

But ever since then the gap has reopened in the Democrats’ favor. Republican pollster David Winston pegs the Democrats’ current advantage at fourteen points, consistent with the findings of recent public polls.

The reason for this is simple. The stringent standards of the No Child Left Behind Act were not—and still haven’t been—matched by a commitment of resources to help lagging schools meet those standards. Consequently, while massive numbers of schools—half or more in some states—are now in danger of being characterized as "failing" and suffering penalties as a result, there is no money available from the federal level to help them. Nor, given most states’ fiscal situations, is it really feasible for states to provide substantial new assistance to help these schools meet standards. And the latest round of Bush tax cuts has just made this situation worse, since many states peg their tax rates to the federal rates and therefore will be bringing in even less revenue than before. Finally, under the provisions of the new law, standards are supposed to become more stringent with every year, which almost certainly will increase the number of schools subject to sanction.

It is this dreadful situation that has led to public disenchantment with the GOP’s educational approach. High standards plus no money equals big problem. The Democrats have a golden opportunity to highlight this contradiction by making the point over and over again that the GOP has imposed this mandate on the states, but chose to fund tax cuts for the rich instead of the schools that are supposed to leave no child behind.

As the article points out, the high standards vs. no money problem is particularly acute in some key swing states such as West Virginia. Thus, not only is the education issue of great importance to various swing voter groups (for example, married women), but it also has the potential to directly boost Democratic electoral vote totals in 2004.

If all this is true, why have Democratic presidential candidates, with the exception of Howard Dean, been so reticent about this issue? Maybe they’re afraid to seem opposed to standards. Maybe they think the economy and health care are so important, they don’t need to bother with education.

Who knows? All Public Opinion Watch knows is that they’re wrong not to pounce on this issue and push it as hard as they can—not only the shortcomings and contradictions of the No Child Left Behind Act, but also the profound unresponsiveness of the GOP to the clear need to modernize our educational system. Why are schools still on the agricultural calendar, with school buildings mostly closed outside of the short school day, when working parents and the challenges of the information economy obviously demand so much more? Why isn’t preschool universally available to all families? Why does the salary structure for teachers still reflect the days when educated women couldn’t do much else other than be teachers, when we literally need millions of high quality, high skill people to enter the teaching profession? The Republicans have no good answers to these questions; Democrats would be well advised to find them.

Ruy Teixeira is a Joint Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation.