Poll: California voters approve of Jerry Brown, not the Legislature

A new poll suggests California voters approve of the job that Gov. Jerry Brown is doing by a 2-to-1 margin – albeit with many undecided. Their view of the Legislature is poor.

Senate minority leader Bob Dutton (R) votes against a part of Gov. Jerry Brown's state budget package at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday.

With California Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Republicans locked in a battle of wills over the budget, a new poll suggests that California voters are much happier with the job Governor Brown is doing than they are with the Legislature.

Brown’s job performance is winning the approval of California voters by a more than 2-to-1 margin – 48 to 21 percent, with 31 percent of respondents having no opinion. At the same time, state legislators continue to receive abysmal marks, with 16 percent of respondents holding a favorable opinion and 70 percent disapproving.

While some experts note that Brown's approval rating is below 50 percent, others say the poll comes at an opportune time for Brown. Two influential chambers of commerce have backed Brown's bid to hold a special election this summer on extending certain tax rates – a move that Republicans are blocking. Moreover, a new election law in California could help blunt any backlash against Republicans who defect to Brown's side.

In that light, the poll could increase pressure on Republicans in the legislature – something Brown is already trying to exploit.

“It could help him at least get the ear of some of these legislators,” says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California. “It shows voters might be more likely to listen to Brown than them.”

Special election is crucial

The tax-rate extension is crucial to Brown’s fiscal year 2012 budget, because the revenues it generates would cover half of the $26.4 billion shortfall. The other half is to be made up of program cuts.

Time is running out for the special election. Brown wants to hold it in June, in part because the current tax rates expire at the end of the month – meaning "tax extensions" would then become "tax increases." A previous Field Poll showed much stronger resistance by voters to “tax increases.”

Bolstered by the findings of Tuesday's poll, Brown launched a YouTube video today, speaking directly to voters to lean on legislators. “Let your legislators know if you would like to have this vote or be shut out,” he says, leaning forward from his oak desk with California flag furled behind.

He reiterated concerns from his campaign, inaugural address, and his State of the State speech: His aim is to set the state on solid fiscal ground "without smoke and mirrors" or "gimmicks."

"We've kicked the can down the road too long. You can't do that forever," he says.

The video link is being sent to Republican districts, and some reports claim Brown may be buying cable time to air it in certain districts. In order to get his tax-extension plan on the ballot, he needs four Republicans – two in the Assembly and two in the Senate – to approve. So far, he has won no converts. The GOP state convention last weekend indicated strongly that those who move toward Brown do so at their own peril.

“The party gave them a big warning, saying that if you do this you are a traitor,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

California's political calculus changing?

But she and others say that two recent changes in the California political backdrop may mitigate that warning.

One is that both the Los Angeles and state Chambers of Commerce have pledged to support candidates who back Brown's special-election call in coming elections. The other is that California’s new “top two” primary – which will pit the top primary vote-getters against each other in the general election, no matter what party they are from – may protect such candidates from the wrath of the most conservative GOP base voters.

“With these two changes, a move towards Brown for a Republican might not be the same kiss of death as for the last ones who voted for tax increases,” says Ms. O’Connor. “The two chambers of commerce want to say, “We’re there for you, so don’t automatically conclude, ‘If I do this, I will automatically lose.' "

Although the poll is good news for Brown, it doesn’t carry as much weight as he would like, says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. One reason is that it’s a survey of registered voters, not those likely to cast ballots in a low-turnout special election. Second, sentiment in individual legislative districts may differ from statewide opinion, with voters in GOP constituencies more likely to oppose tax extensions than voters in Democratic districts.

“Brown is more popular than the Legislature, but that’s not saying much,” Mr. Pitney says.

He notes that although Brown’s approval rating is in positive territory, it’s below 50 percent, and it’s lower than his immediate three predecessors enjoyed at this point in their terms.

“The mad-as-hell antitax voters are probably going to show up, but the open question is whether the governor and his union allies can get their supporters to the polls,” Pitney says.

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