- Ballot Measures
- Public Opinion
Is Partisan Polarization Driving Voter Discontent in California?
In recent months, government reformers in the Golden State have set their sights on two striking trends: The first is increased partisan polarization in Sacramento — marked by the well-documented and growing ideological divide among elected Democrats and Republicans. The second is the rise of the non-partisan voter, as more and more Californians abandon the two major political parties and "decline to state" a partisan affiliation.
The conventional wisdom in the reform community and the Capitol press corps is that the first trend — partisan polarization — has fueled the second, and that voter disgust with extremists from both sides of the political spectrum is responsible for the historic levels of public disapproval with state government.
In this account, moderate Californians, who are finding themselves increasingly unrepresented by the sharp partisans who make up the state Legislature, are leaving the partisan fold and registering as "decline to state" voters. This, in turn, leaves only the diehard partisans to participate in primary elections, which leads to increased polarization in Sacramento, and encourages yet more moderates to leave the parties, fueling a vicious downward cycle and growing distrust and disapproval of the Legislature.
A variety of reform efforts, including the top-two primary that will appear on the ballot in June and the citizen redistrict commission created by voters in 2008, are designed to reverse the cycle by encouraging the election of more moderate lawmakers.
If the reformers are right, and growing polarization is driving voter disgust and the rise of the non-partisan electorate, we should expect non-partisan voters to be the most dissatisfied with state government and most unhappy with the quality of their representation. (Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters recently made this exact argument.)
However, new data from the (link to new Field Poll) Field Poll suggests that the correlation between polarization and non-partisan registration is likely spurious. The poll asked a sample of California voters if they thought “how government works in California responds to the needs of people like you?” Contrary to the polarization thesis, non-partisan voters were actually most likely to answer yes.
Nearly 35 percent of registered nonpartisans said that state government was responsive to their needs, compared to 30 percent of Democrats and 17 percent Republicans.
Looking at political ideology, voters who described themselves as “middle of the road” were also more likely to express satisfaction with their representation than liberals and conservatives and strong ideologues.
In addition to feeling better represented, it appears that political moderates are also more optimistic about the state’s future — though there is clearly great frustration throughout the electorate. More than 17 percent of middle-of-the-road voters said California was moving in the right direction, compared to just 11 percent of ideologues and 10 percent of strong ideologues.
While it's clear that public disaffection with Sacramento is at historic highs, the poll results suggest that growing disapproval is not being driven by political moderates. Though encouraging more moderation in Sacramento may be a worthy policy goal, it is unlikely to improve the Legislature's standing with the public or to stop the flight of registered voters from the two major parties.