Newsom gets no California love for his political ambitions. Maybe he should try elsewhere

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Mark Z. Barabak | Columnist

Bill Clinton was a man of large appetite and no small ambition when he served as Arkansas governor, a job he assumed at the age of 32.

So it was hardly a surprise when, 14 years later, Clinton launched a bid for president.

There was skepticism at the time and some carping of the too-big-for-his-britches variety. But that soon faded with the growing excitement of the 1992 election and the opening of Clinton’s Little Rock campaign headquarters, as Skip Rutherford, an old confidant, recalled.

Gavin Newsom can only sigh with envy.

California’s governor is not running for president. Take him at his word.

Filing deadlines have passed in the key early-voting states of Nevada and New Hampshire, and Newsom must know that a run against President Biden — his fellow Democrat — would almost surely fail, destroying Newsom’s political future in the process.

Still, the gallivanting governor has acted very much like a presidential candidate, striding the global stage and trolling the GOP’s White House contestants whenever he has the chance. Maybe he’s positioning himself for a run after his term ends in January 2027.

Either way, California voters are not pleased.

A Los Angeles Times/UC Berkeley poll released this week found Newsom’s approval rating sinking to the lowest point of his nearly five years in office, with 44% of respondents having a favorable view of his job performance and 49% disapproving.

There may be several explanations; like barnacles on a ship, negatives tend to accumulate the longer a politician stays in office.

Some on the left are disappointed with Newsom’s approach to the state’s homelessness and mental health crises. Some environmentalists are unhappy with the governor’s water policy. (Republicans never could stand Newsom.)

But probably the biggest reason for voter discontent is the governor’s political wandering eye.

“A lot of people don’t think California is doing well,” said Mark DiCamillo, who oversaw the poll for The Times and Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.

“There’s homelessness and now the budget deficit,” DiCamillo went on. “There’s a lot of issues that need attention and they seem to be getting worse — or at least not better — and he’s off doing his own thing.”

The ill will is nothing new. Govs. Jerry Brown and Pete Wilson both sagged in the polls when they stinted on their day job to run off and seek the presidency.

Maybe it’s a California thing.

Two sitting governors have been elected president in the last 90-plus years: Clinton and Texas’ George W. Bush. Both ran with the blessing of the folks back home.

Rutherford, who oversaw the planning of Clinton’s presidential library, said Arkansas voters were captivated as they watched “all the people who came in to work” for the campaign, “all the national press coming in and out,” and “it became a source of, ‘Wow, we got a guy who now has a shot to win this thing.’”

Bush, whose father had been president, was coy even as he used his 1998 gubernatorial reelection campaign to position himself for a White House bid. He won his second term in a landslide and soon enough was traveling the country in pursuit of the presidency.

Texans didn’t seem to mind.

A November 1999 poll, conducted by the Scripps Howard news service, found 72% of those surveyed approved of Bush’s performance as governor. The state’s most powerful Democrat, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, even endorsed Bush for president in 2000, burnishing the Republican’s bipartisan credentials in a way that’s unimaginable in today’s age of impermeable partisanship.

“He was just a chatty, friendly character,” said Bruce Buchanan, a longtime Bush watcher and presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. “Everybody who got close to him came away feeling that way, whether they happened to agree with his politics or not.”

Maybe Californians aren’t all that excited about installing one of their own in the Oval Office.

After yielding two presidents in the last half-century, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and two House speakers of recent vintage, Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy, perhaps national political celebrity isn’t what it used to be.

Things may be different in Florida, which has never produced a president.

Even though Ron DeSantis is struggling there — a recent poll put him a whopping 39 percentage points behind former President Trump in Florida’s Republican primary — voters haven’t necessarily soured on their governor, now in his second and final term.

In a recent trial heat for the 2026 gubernatorial race, DeSantis’ wife, Casey, had more than twice the support of any other potential candidate tested, said Michael Binder, a political science professor and pollster at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

“Clearly, the DeSantis name brand still has a lot of value to it,” Binder said.

Maybe Newsom can ask Florida’s governor for pointers on running for president without alienating his home state when the two archrivals — one seeking the presidency, the other kinda-sorta but not really — debate at the end of the month.

Either that or Newsom could start over someplace else like, say, Democratic-leaning Rhode Island. There has never been a president elected from the Ocean State.

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