Gov. Gavin Newsom is California’s most popular high-profile politician, but that could be tested by voter concerns over his ability to handle the state’s estimated $22.5-billion deficit, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.
The findings provide a “warning signal” to Newsom about the fragility of his political standing among California voters, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll.
“It’s true of every governor: When you start having to cut back on the budget, that’s usually a time when voters get more critical of you,” said DiCamillo, who has surveyed public opinion in the state for four decades. “Now, we haven’t gotten there yet. But that’s why we say there’s clouds on the horizon.”
The survey found that 54% of registered California voters viewed Newsom favorably and 41% rated him unfavorably. Voters gave Newsom very similar marks on his overall job performance.
The relatively good marks extend a comeback for the governor from a low point in late 2020, after he was seen dining at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley at a time when he and his administration were telling Californians to avoid public gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. His standing with voters has improved since opponents launched an unsuccessful effort to recall him.
Yet with a budget crisis looming, 57% of voters lacked confidence in the ability of the Democratic governor and Democratic-led state Legislature to deal with the deficit without making major cuts, compared to 37% who felt confident they could find a way to handle the shortfall without reducing state services.
The budgetary anxieties varied strongly by party, with more than 9 in 10 Republicans not confident at all and 60% of Democrats expressing confidence. Nearly two-thirds of voters without a party preference reported a lack of confidence.
In January, Newsom proposed billions in cuts to climate programs in his budget blueprint for the upcoming fiscal year.
The governor and lawmakers had allocated $54 billion over five years to climate programs in the 2021 and 2022 budgets. His January plan proposed reducing that investment to $48 billion, with the hope that federal funding and future budget revenue increases might make up for the cuts.
A little more than $1 billion of those reductions would come from programs related to zero-emission vehicles. The money was intended to support Newsom’s and California’s goal to phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered cars and trucks in the state by 2035.
According to the poll, 62% of registered voters favored Newsom’s call to scale back funding for the state’s efforts to combat climate change to help balance the budget, while 26% opposed the proposal. Republicans favored the proposed cut (70%) more than Democrats (59%).
DiCamillo said the response doesn’t mean that voters oppose the climate goal, just that they are thinking about more immediate needs.
“It’s not that surprising that they’re not all that opposed to it because it’s not going to affect their pocketbook or their household or their circumstance right away,” DiCamillo said.
The Berkeley survey asked voters about their opinions not only about Newsom but also the state’s other most prominent political figures. The findings were largely split along party lines, with Democrats giving politicians in their own party much higher marks than Republican voters.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco followed Newsom in the ratings, with 48% having favorable opinions compared to 45% who viewed her unfavorably. Perspectives on Vice President Kamala Harris were evenly split at 46%.
While 41% of those surveyed gave Sen. Alex Padilla positive marks, only 23% viewed him unfavorably. That gave Padilla the distinction of being the least disliked high-profile politician in California. He also was the most unknown.
More than one-third of voters had no opinion of Padilla, whom Newsom appointed to succeed Harris before he won the Senate job outright in the 2022 election.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s favorability was particularly low. Among those surveyed, 37% gave her high marks while 43% had an unfavorable opinion of her. At 89, California’s longest-serving senator announced in February that she will not seek reelection next year.
Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield ranked at the bottom of the list, with fewer than 3 in 10 voters offering positive opinions and a majority of voters viewing him unfavorably. Newsom, Pelosoi and Harris all received more support among Democrats than McCarthy received from Republicans.
The poll also asked California voters to appraise Pelosi’s performance as speaker and offer their expectations of how McCarthy will do in the role.
Overall, 45% gave Pelosi excellent or good marks in her former role as speaker. Among Democrats, 71% gave that rating. Voters weren’t as kind to McCarthy, with only 21% overall saying they felt he would do an excellent or good job, an opinion shared by only 49% of Republicans.
The Berkeley IGS poll surveyed 7,512 California registered voters online in English and Spanish from Feb. 14 to 20. Because the survey results are weighted to match census and voter registration benchmarks, precise estimates of the margin of error are difficult; however, the results are estimated to have a margin of error of 2 percentage points in either direction for the full sample.