Dianne Feinstein has been a prominent political figure in California for half a century – the mayor of San Francisco, a Democratic candidate for governor, and a U.S. senator. But with the state becoming younger, more diverse and more liberal, the 87-year-old may be facing the most challenging political landscape of her career.
A new poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) found that Feinstein’s job approval ratings have fallen sharply since 2017 and now are at their lowest point since she was elected to the Senate in 1992. Just 35% of voters statewide approve of the job she’s doing, according to the Berkeley IGS Poll. Nearly half disapprove.
The greatest loss of support has come from voters who are younger and more liberal.
“The way activist Democrats talk about issues now is different than it was 20 or 25 years ago,” said Eric Schickler, a Berkeley political scientist and IGS co-director. “Keeping up with that, being able to appeal to these different groups, just gets harder after 30 or 40 years.”
“The main core constituency is changing within the California electorate,” said Mark DiCamillo, who directed the poll. “It’s a younger electorate. It’s a more diverse electorate. And that doesn’t benefit our senior senator.”
Feinstein was re-elected to the Senate in 2018 and faces re-election in 2024. She turns 88 next month, and while it’s not known whether she will run again, Schickler said she could be more vulnerable than ever before to a challenge from within the Democratic Party.
Feinstein rose to prominence in the 1970s as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; because she was board president when Mayor George Moscone was assassinated in 1978, she automatically became the mayor. In 1992, she and Barbara Boxer became the first two California women elected to the U.S. Senate. It was dubbed the “Year of the Woman” in U.S. politics, and the two Democrats were in the vanguard.
Twenty years ago, Feinstein was at the peak of her popularity: 57% of voters at the time approved her work, while only 27% disapproved. California was more conservative then, and Feinstein’s centrism was a plus.
Today, Schickler and DiCamillo said, it counts against her. Despite her moderate record, only 10% of Republicans and 28% of those with no party preference approve of her performance, the poll found.
A slim majority of Democrats – 53% – approve. But statewide, little more than a quarter of voters under age 40 give her a favorable score. And among those who describe themselves as liberal, her approval rating is 47%, compared to 70% in December 2017. Her age may be compounding voters’ concerns.
A damaging ‘faux pas’ in Supreme Court confirmation hearings
Both Schickler and DiCamillo noted Feinstein’s performance as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, during the controversial and highly partisan confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, nominated by President Donald Trump for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Democrats widely believed that Republicans were ramming the nomination through on the eve of a presidential election. But when Barrett was confirmed by a narrow majority, Feinstein embraced the committee chairman, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and congratulated him on his handling of the hearings.
DiCamillo called it a “faux pas” – and it was costly.
“That was just so out of step with Californians,” he said. “It demonstrated that she doesn’t seem to have the same sensibility that she had for most of her career, in terms of being in step with the California electorate, the mainstream views of most Californians.”
California’s new junior senator, Alex Padilla, today may hold the mantle of trailblazer that Feinstein once held. After California Sen. Kamala Harris was elected vice president, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Padilla, then the secretary of state, to become California’s first Latinx senator.
Voters still don’t know him well, but in the Berkeley IGS Poll, many gave him positive marks, with support strongest among Black voters and the growing cadre of Latinx voters.
“We have new cutting edge in California politics, and that relates to the growth in representation among people of color,” DiCamillo said. “We’re seeing Latinos emerging as major political figures, not only in local politics, but now in state politics. It’s kind of a passing of the torch.”
In other results released this week, the Berkeley IGS Poll reported that:
- By a margin of nearly 2-to-1, Californians offer a positive assessment of the job performance of President Joe Biden, with Harris also drawing favorable response as vice president.
- The Republican-driven campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has failed to gain traction. Some 36% of voters favor the recall, the same percentage as in January, while opposition to the recall has risen four percentage points to 49%.
The Berkeley IGS Poll was conducted online, in English and Spanish, from April 29 to May 5, and is based on the responses of 5,036 California registered voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.