SAN FRANCISCO — California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been clobbered – yet again – in opinion polls.
The most recent Field Poll released Tuesday gives him 27 percent approval rating, the poorest of his tenure and the second lowest of any Golden State governor in 50 years.
But the low marks suggest more than mere voter disillusionment with the governor, experts say. They reflect growing malaise among Californians distresses by their state’s inability to throw off chronic problems made worse by the grip of the recession – from troubled schools to taxes.
The poll expresses the sort of voter angst that is “bigger than one politician or one party,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
It also comes amid growing calls for deeper changes to California’s complex political system, which critics complain gives too much power special interests and ballot initiatives.
In fact, according to the Field Poll, a large majority of Californians want to see lawmakers tackle two of the state’s most vexing problems in special sessions: 73 percent of respondents favor one to deal with California’s water woes and 62 percent want a one dedicated to tax reform.
Even though Schwarzenegger supports water and tax policy overhauls, many analysts are skeptical that he can achieve such ambitious changes, especially with such low ratings.
“Governors are just getting blamed for the hard times,” says Tony Quinn, political analyst and co-editor of California Target Book. “This all reflects a general public dissatisfaction with the fact that this recession just goes on and on, and the government just can’t seem to do anything about it.”
That disappointment doesn’t stop with the governor. The Field Poll shows voter unhappiness with state legislators, too. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said lawmakers were falling down on the job – the lowest rating in the Field Poll’s history.
Schwarzenegger’s fall from a high approval rating of 65 percent in August 2004 follows the deepening economic crisis in California, one of the hardest hit states in the recession.
The unemployment rate is 12.2 percent, the fourth highest in the nation. While the foreclosures slowed by 9 percent in August compared with the year earlier, 92,326 properties still went into foreclosure last month, according to RealtyTrac, an online database of foreclosures.
Over the summer, Schwarzenegger faced off with legislators in a tense budget battle. In the end, the governor signed a $92 billion general fund budget that cut some $15 billion in state services, resulting in thousands of state employees losing their jobs.
“Taxes have been increased and services cut, but [politicians] aren’t really taking a swing at the bureaucracy that voters believe exists … voters believe that billions and billions of dollars can be cut from state budget just by cutting bureaucracy,” says Mark DiCamillo, director of The Field Poll.
From the perspective of the voters who responded to the poll, he says, “nothing in Sacramento has fundamentally changed.”
While he agrees Schwarzenegger’s disapproval rating – 65 percent – reflects current fiscal woes, Mr. DiCamillo points out that past governors have weathered recessions better. Only Gov. Gray Davis dipped below Schwarzenegger, with a 22 percent approval rating in 2003 just before being recalled from office. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s lowest approval rating was 33 percent – 6 points higher than Schwarzenegger’s today – during the early 1990s recession.
“We’ve been through recessions before but we haven’t seen this level of frustration or criticism,” says DiCamillo.
But while his group’s poll shows “a greater loss of confidence than we have seen in the past, the past has also shown Californians have a tremendous ability to bounce back.”