Senate scandals dim voters’ view of Legislature

State Capitol, Sacramento. Photo: Wikimedia

In the aftermath of the corruption scandals now affecting three state Senators, California voters have changed their views about the performance of the Legislature.

The Field Poll was in the midst of updating voter opinions of the state Legislature when news broke on March 26 of the arrest of Democratic State Senator Leland Yee. On that date the F.B.I along with dozens of local and state police arrested Yee for trafficking in Philippine arms and taking
bribes from undercover F.B.I. agents.

A comparison of the Poll’s interviews conducted prior to Yee’s arrest to those completed after his arrest shows a public reappraisal of the Legislature’s overall performance. During the week immediately prior to Yee’s arrest, 46% of voters approved and 40% disapproved of the Legislature’s performance, a finding that showed continuing improvement from previous Field Polls conducted over the past two years.

However, following Yee’s arrest, voter sentiment of the legislature has turned negative. The proportion of voters expressing disapproval jumped six points from 40% to 46%, and now is greater than the proportion approving (43%), which declined three points.

Thus, voter opinions of the Legislature swung a net nine points in the negative direction in the days following news of Yee’s arrest.

Yee’s arrest followed scandals plaguing two other Democratic State Senators, Ron Calderon and Rod Wright, earlier in the year. In January, a Los Angeles jury found Wright guilty of lying about whether the location of his home was within the district he was running for office in the 2008 election.

In February Calderon was indicted on charges that he accepted $100,000 in bribes and gifts. While these two prior cases were well-reported in the press, the extraordinary coverage given Yee’s arrest refocused media attention to the Calderon and Wright scandals.

The cumulative effect of these scandals has damaged the standing of the Legislature in the public’s eyes, especially among Republican and non-partisan voters. Among these two voter segments, majorities now view the Legislature negatively, with Republicans holding a 65% to 26% negative

By contrast, rank-and-file Democrats continue to approve of the Democratically-controlled legislature by a two-to-one margin (58% to 29%).

The Poll also asked voters to assess the job performance of their own representatives in the State Senate and Assembly. The results show that voters apparently make a distinction between their views of the Legislature overall and those of their own representatives.

After Yee’s arrest, more voters said they approved (43%) than disapproved (30%) of the performance of their own State Senator. Even so, the impact of the scandals can still be seen in their assessments, as a slightly larger proportion of voters were critical of their State Senator after Yee’s arrest (30%) than before (25%).

Democrats offer a far more positive appraisal than Republicans, approving of the job their State Senator is doing 58% to 15%. By contrast, Republicans offer a 44% to 30% negative assessment.

There will be elections in all eighty state Assembly districts this year. At present, Democrats hold 55 seats and Republicans 25, a greater than two to one margin. Fifty-seven of these members will be running for re-election as incumbents this year, 41 Democrats and 16 Republicans.

When voters living in the districts where incumbents are running were asked whether they are inclined or not inclined to reelect their representative to the Assembly for another term, 41% are inclined, while 30% are disinclined. Another three in ten (29%) are undecided at this time.

Democratic voters are much more inclined to re-elect their Assembly representative than Republicans. Statewide 54% of Democratic voters say they would vote to reelect their Assembly representative, while just 17% are not inclined and 29% are undecided.

Among Republicans more (40%) are not inclined to re-elect their Assembly representative than inclined (26%). Non-partisan voters are about evenly split (38% inclined and 39% not inclined).

The Poll also finds that voters living in Democratic-held districts are more inclined to reelect their Assemblyperson than are voters in Republican-held districts. This is especially true among the registered Democrats living in the Democratic-held districts.

Ed’s Note: The survey was completed March 18-April 5, 2014 among a random sample of 1,000 registered voters in California, including 444 conducted March 18-26 before news of Leland Yee’s arrest had been widely reported in the media, and 556 conducted March 27-April 5 after the news of Yee’s arrest had been widely reported. 

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