Economy trumps education, public safety in new poll

Education, once the top concern of California voters, is now down the list of priorities, far below the weak economy and narrowly behind public safety, according to a new statewide poll.

Nearly one in three voters – 31.2 percent – cited the economy as their top concern, more than double the number – 15.3 percent – who said they were most concerned about public safety. Some 12.5 percent said the government was their top concern, while 12 percent cited education.

The Probolsky Research/Capitol Weekly Poll surveyed 751 registered voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.7 percent, and the interviews were conducted in English. The survey, conducted between May 25 and May 29, is the latest in a series of quarterly polls.
The telephone survey also posed a number of questions –some of them provocative- regarding candidates, taxes, voters’ political leanings and other issues.

Republicans remain narrowly divided and uncertain about next year’s GOP gubernatorial primary. Early results show a close, three-way race with law school professor Tom Campbell at 11.6 percent, appearing to edge slightly ahead of two well-heeled rivals – business woman Meg Whitman, at 8.2 percent, and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, at 7.8 percent.

Nearly two-thirds of those asked about the GOP primary – registered Republicans and decline-to-state voters who chose Republican ballots in the previous election – were unsure which candidate they would support.

Among Democrats, the field is a little clearer, but only a little.

State Attorney General Jerry Brown, a former governor, is emerging as the favorite to take back his old job, well ahead of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Some 21.3 percent favored Brown, compared with 16.4 percent for Newsom and 14.3 percent for Villaraigosa, according to the survey.

The Democratic contest, however, is clouded by a number of issues.

Of those surveyed – including registered Democrats and decline-to-state voters who supported Democrats in the last election – about 6.2 percent said they favored Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who has dropped from the race to run for Congress in a San Francisco-area district. And there is speculation that Villaraigosa also may withdraw from the race. The departure of Garamendi and Villaraigosa would set up a head-to-head contest between Brown and Newsom.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who enjoyed a comfortable lead in an earlier survey, has all but ruled out a run for governor, confirming on May 21 that it was very unlikaely she would seek the job. In the earlier poll, Feinstein had better than a 2-to-1 edge over Brown in a matchup of likely voters.

The 69.4 percent of voters who say the state is on the wrong track appear to cut across partisan lines, and they reflect a better than 3-to-1 margin over the number of those surveyed, 19.2 percent, who approve of the state’s direction.

When voters characterize their own political outlook, nearly four in 10, or 39.2 percent, describe themselves as moderates. On the right, 34.9 percent say they are somewhat conservative or very conservative, and 21 percent describe themselves as somewhat liberal or very liberal.

The survey also aggressively questioned voters about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s performance, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s reelection outlook, greenhouse gas emissions and the voting preferences of California’s congressional delegation. Both Boxer and Pelosi are Democrats, and California’s 53-member House delegation has a Democratic majority, 34-19.

When asked if you “approve or disapprove of the way Speaker Pelosi is handling her job,” some 47 percent said they somewhat or strongly disapproved, while 29.5 percent said they somewhat or strongly approved. Nearly one in four voters surveyed, 23.6 percent, said they were unsure.

Voters were evenly split over California’s landmark law to curb climate-changing carbon emissions, AB 32. When questioned about the possibility of jobs lost due to the new law, about 44.7 percent said AB 32 should be put into effect as planned, and 44.5 percent said it should be postponed or relaxed.

Regarding the congressional delegation, voters were asked if members of Congress should help enact President Obama’s policies or should “provide greater checks and balances  to President Obama’s proposals.” About 35.7 percent told pollsters that the members should back Obama, while more than half – 53.5 percent – should they said ensure checks and balances.

On Boxer, voters were asked whether the veteran California lawmaker “deserves to be reelected” or whether “it’s time to give someone else a chance.”  About 30.9 percent said she should be reelected, and 51.9 percent said someone else should have a chance at running.

Probolsky Research chairman Adam Probolsky acknowledged the provocative tone of some of the questioning.

“A pollster’s job is to put voters in a box. Make them choose a side – see how they would respond to a neighbor or co-worker’s words like ‘we need to give someone else a chance’ or we need more checks and balances or ‘we need to back the president,’ Probolsky said.

“The questions are clearly biased questions asked in an unbiased way. This is a critical point. We want people to react, to respond. Not prompt them how to respond, but to respond,” he added.

Others aren’t so sure, however.

“The objective for a nonpartisan pollster is to be meticulously neutral, to hold up the mirror without injecting our own commentary into the equation,” said Mark DiCamillo, who runs the Field Poll, founded in 1948 and California’s oldest public opinion survey. Questions can frame the issue – and thus, the responses, he added.

“By using a frame in that way, you get specific results. We don’t know how voters themselves will frame an issue, so you ask the question in a neutral way and you track it over time, and whatever influences the outcome will show up in the measure,” DiCamillo said.

Probolsky Research, which has offices in Laguna Hills and Sacramento, has handled communications and strategy for Republican political campaigns, and corporate and government clients.

The nonpartisan Capitol Weekly, founded in 1988 and redesigned in 2005, is the state’s only newspaper devoted solely to state government and politics.

The full survey is available here, as well as at and at

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