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Schwarzenegger --- How Low Can He Go?

By R. Michael Alvarez

Once seemingly invincible, California Governor Schwarzenegger’s job approval ratings have plummeted to a new low, according to a Field Poll report released on June 21, 2005. The latest Field Poll found that only 37% of registered California voters approved of the job that Schwarzenegger is doing as Governor, while 53% disapproved (10% had no opinion). This is sharp contrast to Schwarzenegger’s job approval rating in Field Polls from last summer, in which about two thirds of registered voters approved of his job performance (for example, in May 2004, the Field Poll showed a 65% approval rating, with only 23% disapproving).

This recent Field Poll showed that Schwarzenegger’s job approval rating has eroded significantly among Democrats (16% of Democrats approved of Schwarzenegger’s job performance in June 2005, in contrast to a 46% approval in September 2004), and among non-partisans (35% of non-partisans approved of Schwarzenegger’s job performance in June 2005, compared to 64% in September 2004).

Of interest to observers in California, though, are signs of erosion among Republicans. In August 2004, the Field Poll pegged Schwarzenegger’s job approval among Republicans at a sky-high 90%, with 5% disapproving and 5% having no opinion. But in the just-released June 2005 Field Poll, 66% of Republicans approved of his job performance, 23% disapproved, and a relatively sizeable 11% of members of his own party said they had no opinion about Schwarzenegger’s performance as California’s governor. So in the past year, Republican approval of Schwarzenegger’s job performance has slid by 24 percentage points --- and Republican disapproval has risen by 18 percentage points.

It is also worth noting that Schwarzenegger’s job approval rating has sunk to about the point where Gray Davis was in late 2002 --- about one year before Davis was recalled from office. The September 2002 Field Poll had Davis job approval at 39%, at a point just before he was reelected for his second term, and just before the campaign to recall him from office picked up momentum.

Behind Schwarzenegger’s plummeting job approval ratings is discontent over the upcoming special election that the Governor has called, and outright opposition to two of three ballot measures he is supporting in November. In this Field Poll, 52% opposed the special election (without any mention of the cost of the election, 61% opposed it when the $45 to $80 million cost of the special election was mentioned in the survey question). As recently as February 2005, the Field Poll found that a bare majority (51%) supported the idea of a special election, when the costs were not mentioned.

According to more detailed data from this same poll (released June 22, 2005), only one of the three ballot measures supported by Schwarzenegger receives majority support from likely voters --- an initiative that seeks to increase the probationary time for public school teachers from two to five years. This measure has the support of 61% of likely voters in this Field Poll, with 32% opposed and 7% undecided.

The news is worse for the other two ballot measures being promoted by Schwarzenegger, as only about a third of likely voters currently support either of those initiatives in this current Field Poll. One of these measures would give control of the state’s redistricting process to a panel of retired judges, and this measure had the support of only 35% of likely voters in the Field Poll, with 46% opposing the measure and 19% undecided. The other measure which aims to impose state spending caps is also widely opposed by likely voters, as 42% said they would oppose this measure, 23% are undecided, and only 35% say they support it.

So barring an extraordinary turn in events, things might get worse for Schwarzenegger before they get better. California voters could see a nasty fight this summer and fall over the fall special election ballot measures, and if Schwarzenegger is on the losing side of that fight that loss could leave him in a vulnerable position as he ponders whether he will seek reelection in 2006. And the news keeps getting worse, as just this past weekend State Controller Steve Westly announced that he was throwing his hat into the ring to contest State Treasurer Phil Angelides for the Democratic nomination to challenge Schwarzenegger’s possible reelection bid next year. Westly’s announcement should guarantee a strongly contested Democratic primary campaign, as well as a steady stream of criticism of Schwarzenegger’s performance as Governor. So with eroding job approval, lack of voter support for his reform agenda, opposition to the special election he called, and Democratic mobilization to oppose his reelection in 2006, political life is likely to get quite tougher for Governor Schwarzenegger this summer and fall.