Californians are angry – at least that’s the conventional wisdom.

Surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California and Field Research Corporation find Californians deeply pessimistic: less than a quarter of voters believe the state is heading in the right direction.

Californians are grumpy about the economy, too. Nearly three quarters of adults believe the economy will be in bad times for the next year. Voters have a low opinion of their elected officials and are critical of institutions such as the schools.

But just how deeply entrenched is this anger?

Some observers believe the public attitudes about institutions and conditions are shaped by the “negative impressions” of American life presented by the news and entertainment media. Another goes further – linking these negative impressions to political bias by the media. There may be something to these theories of external influences, since closer to home people aren’t necessarily all that pessimistic.

A survey of voters by California Business for Education Excellence found voters ranking their local schools significantly higher than California public schools generally. A survey of business leaders by the California Foundation for Commerce and Education found that executives were substantially more optimistic about the prospects of their own business than they were of the state’s economy. And it is widely known that while voters routinely rate the Legislature very low, they hold their own representatives in higher esteem.

So what is making voters mad?

Although the economy is slipping, in relative terms Californians are not so bad off. Unemployment is rising, but it still has not been consistently this low for two decades . Cost-of-living indexes are beginning to edge up, but we’re noticing only because inflation has been off the public’s radar for a generation. Housing prices have come down sharply in the past year, but even today overall home values are 70 percent higher than their 2000 level. Californians’ personal income is 30 percent higher than in 2000.

Still, even these economic ups-and-downs don’t match up to the highs and lows of voter optimism.

But there is one economic measurement that is dead-on to voter attitudes: gasoline prices. When prices march up, voters get angry, when gas prices are steady or, God forbid, track down, then voters are much more optimistic. For the past ten years, the correlation between voter attitudes and gasoline prices is .6, which is pretty strong, and definitely higher than for any other economic measure.

So the quickest and cheapest way to determine voter attitudes isn’t survey research, focus groups or even elections. Just drive to your corner gas station, fill your tank and take the pulse of the voters.