It sounds like a classic political scenario: Facing a $14 billion budget shortfall as they headed to the polls on Feb. 5, voters shot down initiatives calling for more spending and approved ones promising new revenues. Then, for good measure, they shot down Proposition 93, which would have allowed the current legislative leaders to remain in office.
According to the state’s top pollsters, the budget crisis and the overall down economy probably did affect the vote totals — but probably not the ultimate outcomes of the seven initiatives on the ballot.
There was “no question” that financial matters affected the returns, said Mark Baldassare, CEO of the Public Policy Institute of the California. “The economy and the budget were on Californians’ minds when they went to the polls.”
But Baldassare added: “I would say the results were (already) headed in these directions.”
The potential link between money worries and the way people voted didn’t go unnoticed by the group No on the Unfair Gambling Deals. They placed four amended gaming compacts with big casino tribes on the ballot, then encouraged voters to reject them and hold out for better deals. After voters approved Propositions 94 through 97 with 56 percent of the vote each, the No side put out a press release claiming “Budget woes sway voters.”
“This demonstrates voters are quite concerned about California’s economy and the budget, and they are willing to waive their concerns of gaming expansion and the dominance of these four tribes in the wake of the state’s financial woes,” the release stated.
Not exactly, countered Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo: “What the Yes campaign was able to do was place Indian gaming in a more favorable light. I thought the No side never made a case.”
The compact opponents never honed in on voters’ misgivings about expanding gaming, DiCamillo said. This would have been a hard argument for the No side to make, he admitted, given that it was funded mainly by horse racing tracks and two other gaming tribes. The more difficult argument — that these deals were different and didn’t include needed guarantees — was much harder to get voters to understand, he said.
The Field Poll showed a lot of movement on the compacts. In December, voters polled favored them 39 percent to 33 percent, but almost three quarters hadn’t heard from them. A month and about $140 million in advertising later — about three quarters of it from the yes side — and over 4 out of 5 voters had heard of them, and 47 percent approved of them.
But this wasn’t just a case of undecided voters breaking toward the Yes side, DiCamillo said. Between mid- and late January, he said, the Yes side took more voters from the No column than from the dwindling numbers of undecideds.
The budget and economy “absolutely” affected voters, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan political think tank. Still, he said, it was surprising the compacts won by 8-point margins. Usually when there is voter confusion and a deluge of advertising on the No side, voters will turn down initiatives. But despite the presence of both in the campaign, but voters could not turn down a “freebee” that mostly wouldn’t affect the nongambling majority of voters.
“This time people said, ‘We need the money,’” Stern said.
The budget probably wasn’t as much of a factor in Propositions 91 and 92. Prop. 92, which would have guaranteed and increased community college funding, was trailing badly in the polls anyway. Prop. 91, meanwhile, was qualified back in 2006, but was made irrelevant when the transportation funding guarantees it sought were built into the Prop. 1A transportation initiative that voters passed in November. Its sponsors urged voters to reject it.
DiCamillo said it was “a stretch” to say that the poor budget helped take down Proposition 93. Stern said that a very well-done ad campaign against Prop. 93, largely funded by Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, had a major effect. Still, Stern said, the budget created a “negative feeling” around the Legislature. It also appeared to cut several points from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approval rating in recent months, Stern said, making his late endorsement of the term limits change less effective.
Baldassare agreed, saying the budget shortfall “made it harder to argue that experience matters.” But he also pointed to the failure to pass health care reform last year as another major factor causing disillusionment with the legislative leaders.
One of the most promising results was voters trashing Prop. 91 by 17 points, Stern said, because it showed “voters were paying attention.” Any time a nice-sounding transportation initiative is on the ballot, he said, there is a strong chance that voters will approve it without knowing much. In fact, he said, the voters spoke pretty clearly, endorsing the concept of term limits and tribal gaming revenues.
“The voters generally are not fooled into passing things they don’t approve of,” Stern said.