Even in a state that embraced Barack Obama's presidential candidacy with record-breaking passion just two years ago, the lingering economic doldrums have altered the views of voters as the next election nears.
A detailed portrait of the state's likely November electorate, drawn last week by pollster Mark Baldassare at the Public Policy Institute of California, showed heightened economic concerns and increased ideological polarization in the last several years. Both factors, this year, would favor Republicans. But the review also demonstrated that the demographic changes that have benefited Democrats in California continue unabated.
Over the short term — say the nine weeks until election day — Republican views are ascendant, though that appears to be more a reaction to economic woes than a permanent realignment of the state's political DNA.
"It is largely a function of the economy, and the fact that people didn't get what they expected from the change in 2008, which was change in the form of an improved economy," said Baldassare.
Most notably, Californians have adjusted their response to a routine question asked by pollsters: would you prefer lower taxes accompanied by fewer state services, or higher taxes accompanied by more state services?
In 2006, as the last gubernatorial election neared — but before the economy fell off the high wire — 49% favored a government that provided more services at a higher cost, while 44% backed one that offered less for less. That has reversed: Voters deemed likely to cast ballots in November support a smaller government over a more expensive one, 48% to 43%.
The shift may be similar to one seen recently on offshore oil drilling. In 2008, Californians reversed 25 years of opposition to narrowly support offshore drilling. Not coincidentally, gas prices had just zoomed to over $4 per gallon.
Once the cost dropped, so did support for drilling — and the Gulf Coast oil drilling disaster this summer cemented California's views in the anti-drilling camp.
Much the same thing could be going on now, Baldassare said, as voters react to the present without necessarily painting themselves into a corner for the future.
"It's not that they don't want more services," he said. "It's that they are really concerned about their own pocketbooks. I think that people have a sense that they are stretched pretty thin right now, in terms of their own finances, and it's not a good time to ask them for more. I don't think it is a permanent thing… But I don't know how long this prolonged economic downturn will last."
Most of the change was driven by more conservative views among Republicans, of whom 74% opposed a more expensive government, up 7 points from 2006.
"The party has become more solidly conservative," Baldassare said, as has been made clear this year in other states as conservative candidates knocked off Establishment moderates in several primaries. "The messaging within the party has been more conservative."
But some of the shift also stems from a change of heart among independent nonpartisan voters, who now make up 20% of the electorate and are much sought after for reasons of math: neither major party in California is a majority. Victory always follows the whims of those unattached to either side, perennially up for grabs.
According to Baldassare, the "decline to state" or nonpartisan voters feel more strongly now than in 2006 that government needs to shrink. Democrats haven't changed their views.
There were other troubling signs for Democrats among the nonpartisans, who have proved to be loyal friends apart from times when Arnold Schwarzenegger is on the ballot. They still are more likely to align themselves to Democrats over Republicans, by a 38% to 30% margin. But that Democratic figure is down four points from 2006, Baldassare said. The nonpartisans have long typified the middle of the road in California: they tend toward moderation on social issues, are protective of the environment, but are more reactive than members of either party to changing economic times.
"They are really not very eager to see less services, but they want to hear government becoming more efficient, cutting out waste," he said.
If history is any guide, views driven by the economy are as impermanent as a bull market. Even if Democrats are fighting a Republican surge this year, they still maintain an upper hand so long as demography is destiny, because the state continues to move away from the largely white underpinnings of the Republican Party.
Since the last gubernatorial election, registered Democrats have increased their ranks by three percentage points, to 44.5%. Republicans have dropped a bit more than that, to less than 31%, as the percentage of nonpartisan voters has risen slightly.