Storm flags in California

The survey of over a thousand California voters showed concerns with Washington, which is to be expected. Only 23 percent give Congress a favorable rating, about the same as national polls. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is showing the strains of being a liberal icon and frequent target of conservative talking heads. The numbers illustrate the growing partisan divide in America. She has a 10-point deficit in her favorable-unfavorable (34 percent approving and 44 percent disapproving). Among Democrats, however, she scores a 51 percent positive/23 percent negative, while Republicans disapprove by a whopping 79 to 7 percent. Both Sens. Barbara Boxer (D) and Dianne Feinstein (D) get positive numbers from a plurality of voters, showing that Californians think better of their own representatives in the Congress than of the institution as a whole.

Not so with their view of Sacramento politicians. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) gets the lowest approval rating of his career — a pathetic 27 percent approve of his performance on the job. His disapproval rating sets a new high, at 65 percent. That’s a reversal of fortune from five years ago, when the numbers were literally reversed. Of the state’s last six governors, only Gray Davis (D) has sunk so low. He registered a 22 percent approval rating shortly before he was recalled from office in 2003.

The governor does score better than the State Legislature, however. Just 13 percent of voters approve of the job their representatives are doing in Sacramento; 78 percent disapprove. That’s the lowest rating in the quarter-century the Field Poll has been asking the question.

Why are California voters so down on the governor and the Legislature? To start with, 78 percent of Golden State voters think California is seriously off on the wrong track, a number that has grown steadily over the past few years as the state struggled with a huge deficit and partisan gridlock. California is in a drought, wildfires have savaged many communities in the worst fire season in decades, school budgets are being cut, firefighters and police face layoffs, state employees and vendors have been paid in vouchers rather than cash and there is a general perception that no one in Sacramento can do anything about the mess.

Huge majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents think their elected officials are just not doing the job. They want a special session to deal with the two most pressing issues, water and taxes. In a surprising show of unanimity, 73 percent of Democrats, Republicans and independents want a special session to deal with the state’s water crisis. On the issue of tax reform, 62 percent of all voters think Sacramento should go back to work, although there is little agreement on just what changes should be made to the tax code. Voters are clearly sending a mixed message: They don’t think the leadership is capable of solving California’s problems, but they damn well want them to stay on the job until something is done.

In a clear signal of their frustration, a majority of voters want to rewrite the entire state constitution. That may not be so surprising in a state that has amended the charter hundreds of times at the ballot box, but the idea of starting over does show the depth of their frustration. Voters clearly don’t trust elected officials to do that job. Over 60 percent say they’d like to be delegates to a constitutional convention, a show of interest that eclipses election turnout.

Not every state in the nation is as dysfunctional as California seems right now, but the seething anger of voters suggests rough seas ahead in a number of states. Tax revenues are down everywhere, deficits are soaring and elected officials are desperately searching for solutions, usually to no avail. The problems are intractable, the voters angry and the vision of pitchfork- and torch-wielding voters marching on state capitols looks more likely every day. If California continues to be a bellwether, the next election cycle will be a brutal one in any number of states.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.