Jerry Brown is going to win on November 4. Based on the Hoover Institution’s recently released October 2014 Golden State Poll, Brown has a 17 point advantage over his Republican challenger, Businessman Neel Kashkari, among self-reported registered voters. But Brown can’t credit a so-called “California comeback” for his pending victory. Indeed, any sort of true economic comeback remains elusive.
As of September 2014, California’s unemployment rate is 1.4 points above the national rate and has the distinction of being the fourth worse rate in the nation. Even more troubling, California’s average four-year real GDP growth of 1.8% is about half the rate the state experienced coming out of the dot-com-bust recession. This has led to California’s job market underperforming by about 1 million jobs and the state still burdened with roughly 311,000 more people unemployed than at the start of recession. California requires more aggressive growth rates than was previously acceptable to boost its labor market adequately. Any one of these statistics alone should be troubling for an incumbent Governor heading into Election Day.
One explanation for the disparity is that Californians, despite the evidence, feel like the state is recovering. But the October Golden State Poll finds low levels of economic confidence. More Californians (32% to 19%) say they are worse off financially than a year ago and 51% say they will be financially the same in the next six months. Among those employed, almost half are not confident in their ability to find another job in California within six months that pays equally as well. It is evident that Californians are not feeling the much-ballyhooed “California comeback.”
Another possible explanation is that his handling of the budget and economic crisis has bought him tremendous goodwill with voters. Here again, however, the Hoover October Golden State Poll suggests otherwise. The poll asked respondents to rank priorities the Governor of California should focus on in 2015. Among self-reported registered voters who named strengthening the state’s economy as the highest priority, Governor Brown’s lead over Neel Kashkari shrinks to just 9 points. Those who placed weight on California’s long-term debt burden (ranking it as either the first, second, or third priority) favor Kashkari over Brown by 23 points. And even among those who placed priority on balancing the budget, Kashkari leads by 10 points.
There are, however, two possible theories why Jerry Brown is winning despite a lackluster economic recovery.
Being associated with Sacramento isn’t a good thing in California politics. Californians, by a margin of 9 points, disapprove of the state legislature’s performance; of those who hold strong positions, Californians by almost 3-to-1 strongly disapprove of those under the Golden Dome. If Governor Brown’s term had been closely associated with legislative Democrats, he probably wouldn’t be doing so well, but he cultivated an “adult-in-the-room” persona when dealing with the legislature (even if his veto rates suggest this is more political posturing than a true ideological break).
The other theory, and it relates to the one just mentioned, is Brown’s remarkable political skill, knowing exactly which issues to champion, which to run from, and when to do so. For example, in the lead-up to his 1978 re-election, Brown performed one of the most adept political flip-flops, going from staunchly opposing Proposition 13 to enthusiastically implementing it after it passed with 64.8% just months before his re-election.
Californians are evenly split, 46% to 47%, on the future of Proposition 30: half want it to either be repealed or allowed to expire as scheduled, while the other half are okay extending it or making it permanent. This is a testament to Brown’s ability to make a strong case for a tax increase in a state that typically approves tax restrictions.
Brown, also smartly, neutralizes possible tripping points, like California’s political third rail: Proposition 13. Recently, talk of a split roll—removing the cap on business property tax increases—has given Republicans much fodder in the 2014 election. And a plurality of Californians (43%) remain opposed to the idea of a split roll, but Brown, who has been known to support split roll policies in the past, has recently talked in almost-lamenting terms about revisiting this debate.
And as mentioned, Brown’s re-election message is firmly rooted on passing Proposition 1 (the water bond) and Proposition 2 (the rainy-day fund). Proposition 1 appears headed for victory (52% in support), but Proposition 2 is in a bit more precarious position (just 47% support). But by putting his roughly $27 million war-chest behind Proposition 2, Brown will inundate Californians with his talking points in the remaining days before November 4, which can go a long way to neutralizing a sluggish “California comeback.”
But Brown’s actions alone are not the reason for his upcoming victory; it is also partly because of the collapse of the opposition. To win statewide Kashkari would need 95% of the Republican vote, 10% of the Democratic vote, and upwards of two-thirds of the other vote. According to Hoover’s October 2014 Golden State Poll, Neel Kashkari is only getting 77% of Republicans and is running even with Independents and Others. For a Republican statewide victory, a candidate would need to run a well-financed campaign that motivates Republican voters, while not alienating Independents (and even some Democrats) and challenge a Democrat, who is, preferably not an incumbent, and has flaws and weaknesses. As long as the Republican brand remains toxic statewide, it will remain a difficult formula to solve.
One bright spot for Republicans is that Jerry Brown’s re-election focus is on himself and Propositions 1 and 2. Neither will drive turnout or aide Democrats down-ballot. This gives Republicans a chance to prevent a sustained Democratic super-majority in the Assembly and Senate and provides openings for two down-ballot Republicans—State Controller candidate Ashley Swearengin and Secretary of State candidate Pete Peterson. Breaking one-party rule would be to the benefit of all Californians. When and if that happens, Sacramento can begin to focus on trying to promote a real “California comeback.”
Follow Carson on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno
Carson Bruno, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, primarily focuses on California economic, electoral, and public policy analysis.