For the second year in a row, California edged out Florida and Hawaii in a Harris Poll last month, because people living elsewhere don't directly feel the effects of the state's travails, said David Krane, senior vice president at Harris Interactive.
"The perception is that California has great weather and great cities to live in, or great tourist attractions, (and) if people's experience of California is a result of visiting there to go on vacations, they may have a very positive" memory of the state, Krane said.
"All of these things give the impression to someone who isn't living there that it's still a great place to live," he said.
While California had a net loss of more than 755,000 U.S. residents from 1995 to 2000, in part due to notoriously high housing costs, Americans elsewhere have a different perception of the state's current woes, Krane said. The state is now drawing national attention with Arnold Schwarzenegger's candidacy in the recall election.
"Even though the deficit and the governor's race are national news, for someone who's not living in the state it goes in one ear and out the other. It's not impacting them directly," Krane said. A lot of people "don't necessarily translate that (news) into 'if you moved there, you'd have to live with those woes.'"
Florida earned second-place honors for the second year in a row, down from the number-one position it held from 1997 to 2001, and Hawaii was third for the third time, in the Harris Interactive online survey of 2,215 Americans.
Colorado came in at fourth place, followed by New York, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington.
When it comes to Americans' top 15 places to live, New England states don't make the running, and the only Northeastern representative is New York, which moved to number five this year from eighth place last year.
The Southeast fared better, with Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina all in the running. Georgia rose to 14th place from 15th last year, and North Carolina dropped to eighth from fifth place last year.
Texas and Arizona brought the Southwest onto the list. Texas rose to number seven this year, from 14th last year, and Arizona held sixth place for the third year in a row.
For the first time since the survey was conducted in 1997, Nevada joined the list, at twelfth place. Colorado stayed at fourth place for the third year.
Virginia also gained in popularity, moving into ninth place from 12th last year.
Among states that dropped in favor were Montana, which moved to 13th place from 11th, and Alaska, to 15th from 12th.
Tennessee, at seventh place last year, did not make the top 15 this year.