Obama approval tumbles in California: Is Golden State in play for GOP?

President Obama's fundraising trip to California this week comes as a key poll shows his approval rating in the Golden State falling below 50 percent. It suggests Obama has work to do, experts say.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama waves prior to boarding Air Force One before his departure from Los Angeles International Airport Tuesday in Los Angeles.

The sound of “ka-ching” that rang out across California this week, as President Obama made fundraising appearances in Silicon Valley, San Diego, and Hollywood, didn't quite drown out the "thud" that has marked his dramatic drop in Golden State polls.

For the first time since Mr. Obama assumed office, fewer than half of California voters (46 percent) approve of his overall performance, according to a mid-September Field poll. Those who disapprove now stand at 44 percent.

It appears, at first blush, to be a potentially dire development for Obama. California and its 55 electoral votes have been solidly Democratic for a generation – the last Republican presidential candidate to win the state was George Bush in 1988. Losing California in 2012 would likely be fatal to Obama's reelection bid, and even having it in play could force Obama to spend time and money defending Democratic home turf.

But a closer look suggests that California is perhaps not as decisive as it might seem, experts say. With Democrats holding every statewide office here, recent history suggests Californians rally around Democrats when election day comes. And if Obama were to lose California, experts add, it would likely be only in a landslide scenario, where California would not be pivotal, but rather an emphatic punctuation.

What California does show is the urgent need for Obama to reverse his fortunes during the next year, says Matthew Kerbel, a political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “The Field poll numbers reflect what we’re seeing nationwide – a steep drop in Obama’s job approval reflecting the state of the economy and frustration over Washington’s inability to do anything about it,” he adds.

Only three months ago, Californians approved of the job Obama was doing by 54 percent to 37 percent, according to the Field poll. Yet most analysts are loath to suggest that California is now up for grabs. Indeed, they still say any Republican presidential victory here would have to be a political perfect storm.

“The race will be competitive in California only if the GOP can unite and give full voter and financial support to the eventual GOP presidential candidate,” says political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “That means a massive voter turnout among GOP voters. If that happens, the economy continues to stagnate, and the president continues to sink in approval ratings, and there is genuine disaffection or lethargy in the top heavy Democratic voter base, the president could be in trouble in the state.”

Several recent election reforms could make the electorate harder to gauge in 2012. For example, a new nonpartisan redistricting committee has shaken up electoral maps, meaning that some districts may not be as reliably partisan as they have been in the past.

“There are more than usual moving pieces this time around,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

But she adds that these early poll numbers reflect a long pattern in California of Democrats bickering early, then eventually rallying behind their own. “Democrats always eat their own early on, but when it comes to election time, they rally around together and elect them,” says Ms. O’Connor.

This is partly because of California’s demographics: 44 percent of likely voters are Democrat, 30.9 percent are Republican (down from 34.2 percent in 2007) and 20.4 percent are “decline to state” (up from 18.7 percent in 2007).

California remains solidly blue despite the Field poll numbers, some say, meaning it remains relatively safe for Obama in 2012.

“Despite his lower approval ratings, he continues to run well ahead of the leading Republican candidates in head-to-head matchups,” says Jim Broussard, a history professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

“If the Republicans do win California next year, they won’t have needed it," he adds. "They will have won enough other, easier states to be well over 270 votes without California. So if the Republican nominee is smart, he will avoid being sucked into the pipe dream of, 'If I only spend X millions in California, I can snare the state.' "

Professor Broussard says it is presumably GOP hopeful Mitt Romney who would be best suited to challenge Obama in California – as he is almost everywhere. Broussard points out that there have been 19 state polls recently pitting Mr. Romney and front-runner Rick Perry versus Obama, and Romney does better than Mr. Perry in 18 of them, including California.

“The winning votes are always in the middle, and Romney has the best chance of not scaring those independent voters,” Broussard says.

Republican strategist Dave Johnson agrees that California is a long shot for Republicans in 2012, and therefore not a wise investment.

“Their money would be much better spent on more winnable states such as Ohio or Florida,” says Mr. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision LLC, a public relations and political consulting agency.

The 2010 midterm election was instructive, he says. Nationwide, Republicans made huge gains in Congress and in statehouses, but in California, no Republicans won any statewide offices, and Democrats came within four seats of winning a two-thirds majority in the state Legislature.

“If there was going to be a Republican sweep in California, that would have been the year, but it didn’t happen,” says Broussard.

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