“Foundations” – A Q&A with Mark Baldassare

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As president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, Mark Baldassare oversees statewide public opinion polls on matters of concern to Californians.

“Foundations” is a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and grantees of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a grantee launched in 1994 with support from Hewlett Foundation founder Bill Hewlett and others who believed that California needed its own independent policy research organization to provide nonpartisan analysis and information to the state’s policymakers and citizens. Today, a staff of sixty demographers, sociologists, economists, and others create reports across a range of topics of public interest.

Trained as a sociologist, Baldassare was chairman for the urban planning department of the University of California, Irvine, when he joined PPIC in 1996 as a visiting fellow. He went on to a sabbatical year at the Institute and became a senior fellow there in 1998, when he launched PPIC’s first statewide survey of Californians’ attitudes. In 2001, Baldassare left the UC Irvine faculty and became PPIC’s program director of governance and public finance. The following year, Baldassare became its research director. He was named president and CEO in 2007. He is the author of eight books, including California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape and A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World.

What did we learn in the election that just ended?

There’s been a period of great discontent with the legislature and governing process in California. Now, with the November 2010 election, we’ve seen voters approve a simple majority vote to pass a state budget. In February 2012, there will be another effort on the ballot to reform term limits, which I think voters will seriously consider. So I do think this is a time in which reform and change already have begun to take place in California.

Californians are deeply distrustful of state government but also recognize that we can’t expect a lot of help for the state from the federal government and that we’ve got to get our act together. There’s interest in having a government that is more effective, more efficient, and more responsive.

The Public Policy Institute of California may be best known for the regular statewide surveys you conduct, but isn’t your work much broader?

Our surveys that look at the political, social, and economic attitudes of Californians get the most attention, but more of our work is creating reports on topics of public interest. For a study to be launched, the topic has to meet the rigors of research and be relevant from a policy standpoint. Sometimes research ideas come from our staff, and others are suggested by policymakers or people who influence policy. Either way, the subjects have to be timely, germane, and linked to good empirical data—facts we can bring to the table.

How have Californians’ attitudes about public issues changed over the years you’ve been doing the surveys?

Two trends have dominated. One has been the growth of the Latino vote, which was less than 5 percent of California’s electorate in 1990. By 1994, when we began our polling, it was up to 9 percent. And in our most recent election in November, 22 percent of voters were Latino. That’s been a huge change. Since 1994, there has also been an escalation of involvement of Latinos in elections and campaigns for elected office. It’s had a tremendous impact on initiatives and on who succeeds in legislative and statewide elections. One of the reasons we conduct surveys of the size we do is to understand the Latino electorate and to follow its progress and interests. We believe it will become a more and more influential aspect of elections.

The other really important trend has been the growth of decline-to-state voters, who don’t identify themselves as either Republican or Democrat because they don’t see themselves as fitting into either party. Today about 20.5 percent of the electorate—about 3.5 million registered voters—define themselves as decline-to-state.

This group is of great interest to us because it really drives election outcomes. These independent voters can swing Republican or Democrat and support initiatives that don’t necessarily benefit one party or the other. Their rise was a factor in taking redistricting out of the hands of the two major parties, which California voters approved in 2008. The open primary system, in which the top two vote-getters regardless of party enter the general election, passed this year. It really creates the possibility for political and electoral reform that probably wouldn’t have happened without them.

It will be very interesting to see how these two trends—the growth of the Latino vote and the growth of the independent vote—will be expressed in coming years and affect the kind of new politics we will have in California.

What are your thoughts on the contradictions in public opinion? For example, surveys have shown that Californians want good schools and roads but that they don’t want to spend the money to get them.

Actually, there are things that the public is willing to support with tax dollars. And one of those is K-12 education. Californians believe it should be a priority in state spending. Most of the surveys we’ve conducted here and in other states consistently indicate that people are willing to raise their taxes for good schools. The challenge for average Californians—besides their own current economic difficulties, which make them reluctant to spend extra money on anything—is making sure that government spending is efficient. They hear things that lead them to believe it is not, and that accounts for some of those contradictory opinions.

How do you think people misunderstand and misuse polling results?

I have two pet peeves. One is people’s belief that surveys of voters are surveys of the public at large. But in California, these are different groups. The voters tend to be less ethnically diverse, much more affluent, more likely to be college educated, and high-income homeowners. It’s a fairly exclusive electorate. And the views of the public at large—the group that is more likely to be in need of social services—aren’t reflected in surveys of voters.

We survey all adults and then break out the results for voters. But we’re always conscious that in public opinion polling in California, you want to be the voice for all the people, not just the people who reflect their views in elections.

My other pet peeve is people’s lack of awareness that the opinions we survey change and evolve. Some are less likely to change than others. But I always want to make sure people understand that opinion polling is just a snapshot in time, not an ultimate statement of the public’s position.

For example, we’ve seen views on off-shore oil drilling change dramatically over a decade. First, Californians were strongly against it; then half of them said that they were in favor; and in our most recent survey in July, Californians were again strongly opposed to drilling. Opinions about same-sex marriage have shown similar swings. In 2000, when we started asking about it, most people were opposed. By the end of the decade, the majority of Californians said they favored it. Support for simple-majority passage of state budgets has also changed over time. Voters used to oppose this idea; now they approve it. This is why we ask the same questions over the course of a year or more.

On issues like the budget, the economy, candidates, and ballot propositions, we look at opinions monthly. Certainly this is true of the economy and fiscal issues. For views on education and the environment, we feel the need for an annual in-depth check-in.

How is the art and science of polling changing, and how do you think it will evolve in the foreseeable future?

One big change is the public’s growing use of mobile phones. We’re constantly monitoring that shift and its implications for polling. In the years that we’ve been conducting the PPIC surveys, we’ve gone from contacting people via landlines to using a mix of landlines and cell phones. And we’re always looking at how to represent the mobile phone population in our sample.

The second big change is that California has become a state that is multicultural and multilingual. We have to be sure we’re reflecting the views and opinions of everyone, not just the English-speaking population. It’s the same issue I mentioned earlier: we need to be sure we’re soliciting the opinions not just of voters but of the larger public. We interview in multiple languages, and we need to be sure we’re doing a good job.

So should we count you among the optimists with regard to state government?

I am quite optimistic given that Californians are deeply aware that we have economic and fiscal challenges and are very open to doing things a different way.

Our surveys suggest that the public deeply appreciates the initiative process but thinks it is too often influenced by big money and special interests. They will look closely at all reform efforts and try to understand who is behind each one, because they are skeptical. They’ll need to believe that the push for change is coming from sources that aren’t just out to benefit themselves. They’ll want to make sure reforms aren’t designed simply to benefit business or unions, or Republicans or Democrats, or liberals or conservatives, or Northern or Southern Californians, but to advance the general good.

 

 


Foundation Newsletter January 2011

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