Pollster Mervin Field has just about seen it all in more than 40 years of taking the political pulse of California, but he says the voter mood has never been as feverish, cranky and unforgiving as it is today.
So much has gone wrong in the state in the past two years, Field said in an interview, that the 1992 election campaign holds the potential for the first true California voter revolt in modern times, perhaps ever.
"There is no parallel in California history," said Field, founder of the Field Poll and a respected political analyst.
California voters are reaching "the snapping point," he said. "They don't see anything working . . . . The public really is ready to throw off the traces."
Many experts agree with Field that California voters are so frustrated by governmental gridlock that many are inclined to vote for change--and against incumbents--even though they cannot be sure just where the change will lead. Others believe that the frustration will result, as it has many times in the past, in lower voter turnout in November.
Susan Estrich has heard the message so often and so vehemently on the Los Angeles radio talk show she has been host of that it blisters her ear.
"There is an amazing level of anger and outrage," said Estrich, a law professor who toiled in Democratic presidential campaigns the past three elections. "It cuts across ideological and political lines. It's not just Republicans or Democrats. It's across the board.
"I think people will vote against anyone they possibly can," she said. "This has got to be the world's most frightening time to be an incumbent."
The underlying list of complaints is familiar: freeway traffic, smog, crime, drugs and the turmoil of a society in transition. Add to that a deep recession, acute economic anxiety and the erosion of the security blanket that millions of Californians believed they always could count on: home equity.
Add the Los Angeles riots, outrage over the House of Representatives check and pay raise controversies, and the anger at officeholders who seem to ignore the issues important to their constituents. Throw in the fires, floods and earthquakes for good measure.
But it has been this summer's state budget deadlock in Sacramento that has blown the lid off the political pot, Estrich and others believe.
In Sacramento, leaders point out the pressures that have led to the impasse and the complex and critical choices underlying the stalemate. But people see the state issuing phony money in the form of IOUs and legislators eligible to collect $100 a day in personal living expenses, Estrich said.
The public does not want to talk issues now, she said, summarizing the general feeling she hears from callers: "You knew this problem was coming. You knew these issues were coming. Why didn't you put them on the table and start solving them?"
With many Californians ready to vote against anybody who they think represents the old political Establishment--or not bother to vote at all--candidates are scrambling for a way to capitalize on the bleak public mood, others for a way to survive it.
The traditional Labor Day start of the campaign still is three weeks away, and in many years the sweeping political trends that loomed large in summer evaporated by fall as voters return to their usual patterns. But there seems to be less certainty that this will happen in 1992.
Republican Sen. John Seymour is one example of a candidate steering a delicate course: an appointed senator in office for 19 months who has run campaign ads that do not even identify him as an incumbent senator, and that promise that he will "shake things up in Washington."
"This is not the year to say: 'I'm the incumbent, reelect me' " Seymour adviser Marty Wilson said. But he said the campaign will run ads this fall that will tout Seymour's achievements in the Senate. "We're not running from it (the record)," Wilson insisted.
Experts such as pollster Field believe that the mood for change favors the two Democratic Senate candidates, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both of whom enjoy double-digit leads in the opinion polls. Even so, the two women are not yielding to conventional political wisdom as perceived favorites might.
The accepted California campaign scenario demands that candidates focus almost exclusively on getting television exposure in the big media markets of Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Except for brief forays into the growing San Joaquin Valley and the Inland Empire, campaign trips to California's nether regions are considered foolish.
But Feinstein, the former San Francisco mayor, just completed a campaign trip through sparsely populated areas of Northern California and has vowed to visit all 58 counties by Nov. 3.
Starting Monday, Boxer, from Marin County, begins a 17-day, "California highways tour" that will take her to 65 cities and towns, from Eureka on the North Coast to San Diego near the Mexican border.