Gavin Newsom’s approval rating as measured in the recent Public Policy Institute of California poll is mixed at best and just might reflect attitudes toward the contradictions that abound in California. 

Likely voters barely approve of the job Newsom is doing by 48% to 45% while 7% did not express an opinion. With the poll’s margin of error calculation just above three percent, Newsom’s numbers are dead even. Shouldn’t he be doing better in his first year in office—the traditional “honeymoon” period for a newly elected official?

Actually, Newsom’s approval ratings have not moved much since PPIC began polling the popularity of the new governor. California’s likely voters gave him a 43% approval rating in January when he was inaugurated and stayed in the same ballpark throughout the year: 45% March, 47% May, 47% July, 43% September.

Mark Baldassare, President and CEO of PPIC and director of the poll, wrote last month that in these times of hyper-partisanship a top elected official is unlikely to break out of  so-so approval. Large shares of voters stood in their corners as “strong” Republicans or Democrats, the poll found, and reacted to Newsom accordingly.

“The “not so strong” Republicans and Democrats give more mixed reviews—but their diminishing ranks means that approval ratings are more polarized and static,” Baldassare wrote.

While Baldassare expressed surprise that Newsom’s numbers remain below 50% despite low unemployment and multi-billion dollar budget surpluses, he added, “Most Californians have made up their minds about whom they do and do not trust in government. Many view their federal and state officeholders through party labels rather than ideas and actions. It would take extraordinary circumstances for Governor Newsom to rise much higher in public esteem.”

Yet, I wonder if the numbers also reflect some contradictory truths about modern-day California.

Yes, California has a booming economy and budget surpluses but it also has the highest poverty rate in the nation. Yes, California is leading the environmental revolution, promoting alternative energy while the governor is calling for stricter limits on fracking, but California imports most of its oil making its energy supplies expensive and adding to pollution while the state is also suffering a wave of blackouts. Yes, California has the nation’s toughest gun laws, yet headlines in the last week reported on three mass shootings across the state.

Doesn’t contradictory California add to the middling reaction to Gov. Newsom’s job approval?

I asked Mark Baldassare about this idea. He told me, “It’s always important to keep in mind that 63 percent of Californians view the state as divided into two economic groups—the haves and have nots—and 44 percent say they are among the have nots. In so many ways, the PPIC Surveys this year reflect the fact that not everyone is living the California Dream. The governor and legislature are held accountable for this state of affairs at a time when 61 percent of Californians think things in the Unites States are headed in the wrong direction.”  

One last thought. In comparing Newsom to predecessor Jerry Brown at this stage of his governorship (in his most recent return to the governor’s office, November 2011), Brown’s approval ratings were slightly better than Newsom’s at 47% approval, 38% disapproval, 15% don’t know. So he was still ahead when considering margin of error.

Brown was often called the “adult in the room” in dealing with policy and the California legislator. He ended his final run as governor on a higher note at 52% approval. 

Newsom laid out a different path than Brown.  He’s gambling that as leader of California’s leftward march approval ratings will rise. So far, that is not the case.