New polling shows California’s dire economic straits will dominate the politics of 2010.

Candidates who are confronted by political reporters armed with results of the latest campaign poll are fond of responding dismissively, with the hoariest cliche in the business: “The only poll that matters is the one on election day.”

But politicians who hope to triumph on the ballot next November 2 ignore at their peril at least one pre-election poll that is all but certain to frame every campaign in California in 2010. It’s a just-released survey by the independent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), which documents and details the depth and breadth of economic despair in the nolonger Golden State.

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Beyond the horse race numbers in the governor’s race, the contentious debate over the state budget, and big environmental concerns like offshore oil drilling and climate change, the state’s political atmosphere will be heavy next year with anxiety, fear, and gloom among voters pondering their financial futures:

• By a four-to-one ratio (75-19%), Californians say their state is headed in the wrong direction. That view that is more pronounced among likely voters (77-16%). Asked what they foresee for the economy in the next 12 months, voters overwhelming (70-25%) said they expect bad times rather than good.

• Half of Californians now express concern that they or someone in their family will lose their job in the next year, with six in 10 of those with incomes under $40,000 personally worried about unemployment. Highlighting the human face of the issue is the fact that 11% of those surveyed volunteered to polltakers the information that someone in their family has already lost their job; that number has more than doubled since the beginning of the year.

• Nearly seven in 10 people (65-35%) said they are concerned about having enough money to pay their rent or mortgage; in the Los Angeles region, an astonishing 73% said they feel uncertain about being able to pay for housing.

As Mark Baldassare, who directed the PPIC poll, put it: “Voters have more immediate concerns than who is going to be the next governor.”

AND THEY’RE OFF AND RUNNING: On the other hand, for the benefit of political junkies seeking data to help book their bets in Vegas, here’s the current shape of the governor’s race: Ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman still leads the Republican field for governor, with 32% over former state finance director and congressman Tom Campbell (12%) and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (8%). But the big winner in the GOP race right now is Mr. Undecided, who holds 44% of the likely Republican vote.

Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary, leads all his GOP rivals in simulated match-ups, although his relatively narrow 43-37% edge over Whitman would keep him awake at night if he wasn’t such a life-is-illusion Zen master type, given that billionaire eMeg has announced her intention to spend $100 million or more in spare change she found in the sofa cushions.

KEY QUESTION: Will the spectacle of Whitman (and Poizner, who’s also independently wealthy) spending vast amounts of their own money backfire and turn off economically struggling voters? The PPIC poll found that likely voters, by 49-39%, have a more positive view of candidates who raise money from supporters than they do of candidates who finance their own campaigns. Somewhat surprisingly, that trend is greater among Republican voters, who prefer candidates who fundraise to self-funders 55-38%.

WHO CAN MAKE CHANGE: Amid the suffering of the recession, 2010 will be a change election, with voters looking for candidates who can lead us out of our economic woes. Given widespread cynicism, both about dysfunctional government and big business greed heads who get taxpayer bailouts, however, it’s hard to tell who’s less popular-career politicians or former CEOs. It’s an intriguing question, given the chances of a Brown versus Whitman general election race highlighting just such a choice.

Californians are evenly divided on the issue: Asked whether they favor political or business experience in a statewide candidate for governor or U.S. Senate, 43% said they prefer someone who’s been in elected office, with the same number favoring someone with private sector experience.

Not surprisingly, voters from the two parties are polarized on the question. Democrats prefer political experience, 60-26%, while Republicans like business experience, 61-27%. In more unsettling news for Brown, independents strongly favor business over government experience, 50-32%.

BOTTOM LINE: That’s why they have horse races.

You can see the entire PPIC poll at Happy holidays, and see you in 2010.


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