On SoS Field Poll: Maybe It’s Not (Just) About Parties

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

In my esteemed colleague Joe Mathews’ recent piece in these (web) pages, he offers this reason for my current 13-point lead in the statewide Field Poll on the Secretary of State race: “Those surveys reflect one fact: Peterson is a Republican.”

While I would like to think these results are all due to my offering the most complete plan to reform the office, or even because – as KQED’s Scott Shafer wrote – I’m “Hollywood handsome in a Clark Kent kind of way,” I have to agree with Joe’s assessment. I also concur with Joe’s broader point, “Party identification – and yes, partisanship – remain strong forces, despite a century of efforts by self-styled California reformers to wipe them out.”

As I have written in these pages, Party identification can provide an important signal to voters, and while both of the main Parties are fairly large tents, they do offer at least a 15,000-foot perspective on a candidate’s views on the relationship between government and citizens.

Also, Parties are powerful civic engagement platforms, which (for Republicans) through groups like Women’s Federated chapters, Tea Parties, Lincoln Clubs, County Central Committees, give Californians (as I wrote here in January), “points of connection between citizens at the local level and the distant machinations in Sacramento and Washington, DC. If you care about civic engagement, you should care about the ‘health’ of Parties.”

But I think we’re seeing another dynamic in the “Field Poll Shocker”. While it’s fair to say that my 30% result versus Dan Schnur’s 4% may be the result of Party identification, how do we explain Alex Padilla’s 17%? After all, he carries the dominant Party identification, as does Derek Cressman who drew 3%. So if you put both of the listed Democrat percentages together it’s still a 10-point deficit…so it’s not just splitting the vote.

In fact, when you look at the “pre-Yee indictment” Field Poll numbers that include Senator Yee in the Poll, there is still a significant gap between the combined Democrat candidate percentages and the leading Republican.

Maybe it’s not just the Party identification. Maybe it’s (also) the ballot designation.

As for me, I’m running with the “educator/institute director” designation, which is what I am. Alex is running as “State Senator”, which is what he is.

Although not always a great gauge of the statewide opinion, Google “culture of corruption” plus “Sacramento” and you get 113,000 hits – with most of those being recent news stories and opinion pieces in major California news sources.

Not just on the campaign trail – where I’m speaking to mostly right-leaning audiences – but even back home in Santa Monica where my wife and I might be the only Republicans on our side of town, there is a growing sense among our Democrat neighbors that this rash of scandals is directly tied to the fact we have been a one-Party state for so long.  You hear more Californians quoting Lord Acton these days: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

A look at the Field Poll for the Controller’s race brings what might be developing into clearer focus. Once again, a Republican – Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin – leads a statewide race. In this case, her 28% polling leads State Board of Equalization member, Betty Yee (19%), and the candidate who has raised the most money, Assembly Speaker John Perez (14%).

And once again, the leading fundraising candidate happens to have a ballot designation most closely tied to the Legislature is double-digits behind a Republican whose designation (“Fresno Mayor”) places her outside Sacramento.

It’s not just Party affiliation, but Party affiliation combined with a ballot designation that places the candidate outside of Sacramento that appear to be swaying voters convinced that a mixture of self-interests and special interests has swallowed our capital.

In this unique time, Republican vs. Democrat may not be as important to California voters as Outsider vs. Insider. And it’s in eras of public malfeasance that Republicans can more easily appeal to their history as reformers with a message of fighting corruption through greater civic engagement and technology-enabled transparency.

A professor friend of mine here at Pepperdine recently gave me a copy of a 1975 press release from the group, “Citizens for Reagan for President”. In the memo Reagan declaims, “Our nation’s capital has become the seat of a ‘buddy’ system that functions for its own benefit – increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker…Today it is difficult to find leaders who are independent of the forces that have brought us our problems – the Congress, the bureaucracy, the lobbyists, big business and big labor.”

Substitute “state’s capital” for “nation’s capital” and “Legislature” for “Congress”, and Reagan has described what many Californians believe today in the wake of three indictments of sitting state senators.

This is Reagan the populist, the reformer, the outsider…with experience.

Those “insider” candidates have yet to spend from their war chests, and there are significant portions of the electorate who are undecided, so there will probably be changes in the polls to come, but this is an election year in California where “outsiders with a plan” – especially Republicans – can win.

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