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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
George Skelton

George Skelton: California voters don't like where the state's headed. But they still want Newsom in office

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Most California voters think the state is headed in the wrong direction, yet they intend to reelect the governor who's leading us there. That seems wrongheaded.

But it's explained by two modern-day realities. Political polarization has gripped all of America. And in California, most voters have lost all confidence in the Republican Party. They'll choose most any Democrat over a GOP candidate, especially for statewide office.

That and the fact there are nearly twice as many Democratic voters as Republicans. Both parties are polarized, but it's a lopsided matchup.

This was illustrated in a statewide survey released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

With less than two weeks remaining before election day, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom leads Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle among likely voters by a virtually unsurmountable 55% to 36%. Newsom is ahead in every major region of the state except the Central Valley, where the two are statistically tied.

More voters intend to vote for Newsom than approve of his job performance, although the difference isn't that much — 3 percentage points.

But another statistic is eye-opening: 54% of voters think California is "going in the wrong direction." Only 43% believe we're headed on the right path.

Yet, Newsom is running away with the election.

"To me, one of the biggest findings of the survey was that even at a time when 54% of voters think the state is headed in the wrong direction, the majority are willing to support the governor," says Mark Baldassare, PPIC's president and pollster.

"That says a lot about the current political context. Voters are so polarized in California."

Past generations of Californians voted for the candidate over the party. No more.

The Democratic governor dominates politically on many things.

His decision to side with the California Teachers Associaton and oppose Proposition 30 may have doomed that ballot measure.

It would raise state income taxes on the richest Californians, mainly to help motorists buy electric vehicles — including drivers for ride-hailing Lyft, the measure's big bankroller. The powerful CTA is opposed because schools would be cut out of the measure's new tax revenue.

Newsom ran TV ads calling Proposition 30 "a Trojan horse" and a "terrible, terrible initiative."

The new PPIC poll shows it trailing for the first time — 41% in favor, 52% against. A September survey before Newsom's ads found the measure ahead, 55% to 40%.

"With a ballot proposition, the burden of proof is always on the 'yes' side," Baldassare notes. "Certainly, doubts are raised when the governor says, 'Don't vote for it.' And the CTA says, 'Don't vote for it.'

"It doesn't take much for a voter to say, 'Somebody's trying to fool me. I'm not an expert on this. Naw, I'll wait until the next time around for something with more clarity.'"

On another front, Newsom was strong enough to set up the pathetic excuse for the campaign's only gubernatorial debate. Little input on scheduling was allowed from his Republican opponent.

The timing was almost laughable: At 1 in the afternoon on a beautiful fall Sunday. If voters weren't enjoying themselves outside, they were probably watching pro football on TV.

Newsom, of course, wanted to make sure no one watched the debate. So, he dictated that it be broadcast on radio — and at a time when virtually no one would tune in. C-SPAN did run a delayed telecast at dinner time.

It's the old time-honored, if sickening, political strategy: If you're way ahead in the polls, don't risk allowing voters to watch you say something really stupid during a debate. And don't give your unknown opponent who can't afford TV ads an opportunity to introduce himself to voters.

"I've always wanted to schedule a debate the same night as the Oscars," says Dan Schnur, a former Republican operative who teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley.

"Give Newsom credit, he's about 1,000 points ahead and he probably could have gotten away with not debating at all."

Schnur, like several political pros I called, didn't bother to catch the debate. That's how significant they thought it was.

One Republican consultant who did listen in — while also watching the San Francisco 49ers game — was Matt Rexroad.

"I actually think Newsom performed pretty well," he says. "He was always on point. No lack of facts."

Yes, Newsom is uniquely capable of storing a hard-drive load of data in his head and spewing it out breathlessly nonstop. It's impressive, but often painful trying to digest.

Newsom tried to morph Dahle into a MAGA Trump disciple. He called his underdog opponent a "passionate supporter" of the former president, who's the devil incarnate among California Democrats.

A Trump voter, yes, but never with any sign of passion.

Dahle attacked Newsom as a governor who's so busy running for president that he's ignoring his own state's problems of homelessness and unaffordability.

Newsom has been flying around the country promoting California liberalism — especially on abortion rights — and trying to gain a foothold in the national arena. But I doubt he's now running for president.

If there was any news out of the debate it came when a moderator asked Newsom whether he'd commit to serving a full four-year term, thus passing up a possible 2024 presidential run.

"Yes," the governor replied.

But we've heard that before from other politicians. It's a pledge that can be quickly broken without much of a penalty.

Ask Newsom again a year from now — after he's reelected despite people being unhappy with the direction the state's heading.


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