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California Election 2018: Updates and Analysis

California Election 2018: Updates and Analysis

June 1, 2018

GOP now at number 3

With the California primary less than two weeks away, two new polls provide some clues to what voters are thinking. And while the state overall still looks true blue, the surveys do give Democrats a few reasons to worry.

Here are key takeaways:

Second spot in the top-two contest for governor is still uncertain

In a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom maintained his consistent gubernatorial lead with support from one-in-four likely voters. No surprise there. But in the all-important race for second place, Republican John Cox beat out Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic former mayor of Los Angeles, 19 to 15 percent.

That bodes well for Cox, the conservative businessman who will need to snag one of the top two spots to advance to the general election ballot. It’s also good news for the entire Republican Party:  Two Democrats at the top of the ticket would likely depress Republican turnout. And almost all the surveying was done before President Trump tweeted his endorsement of Cox last Friday, so a potential “Trump bump” isn’t even captured in polling yet.

Team Villaraigosa got some better news yesterday from a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, which put him in the second spot. Barely.

Though they are competing for the same position on the ballot, Cox and Villaraigosa are courting different segments of the electorate. Cox needs to consolidate Republican voters, which the Trump endorsement was designed to aid.

Meanwhile, the Villaraigosa campaign is counting on higher than average turnout from Latinos and voters in Los Angeles. The PPIC poll shows that 39 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of L.A. likely voters support Villaraigosa. The results from USC are a little more discouraging for the former mayor: 23 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

“It’s a race between Cox’s Trump endorsement—which will hurt him in the fall tremendously—and Villaraigosa’s demographic advantages if he can actualize them,” said Bob Shrum, director of the USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

The big “blue wave” may have hit the doldrums

For Democrats there’s good news and bad news.

First, the good. When likely voters were asked whether they would prefer to vote for a Democrat or a Republican in the upcoming Congressional elections, voters overwhelmingly tilted blue.

Better yet, according to the USC poll, a majority of California likely voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act (57 percent to 28 percent) or supported the recent federal tax legislation (52 percent to 21 percent).

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is actively targeting seven Republican-held congressional districts this year. These are prime opportunities for the party, which only needs to flip 23 seats nationwide to retake control of the House of Representatives in the fall.

Which brings us to the bad news. When the PPIC poll broke out the likely voters who live in the 10 most competitive congressional districts which party they would favor for Congress, 61 percent opted for Republicans, while only 32 percent tilted Democrat. That’s a 29 percentage point gap that any blue wave is going to have to breach.

“The Democrats have their work cut out for them,” said PPIC president Mark Baldassare. “These are districts where they’re going to have to have a message other than ‘Donald Trump.’”

For Senate, Democrats like Feinstein and Republicans are despondent

In her race for a fifth term, Sen. Dianne Feinstein enjoys a massive lead over her chief opponent, state Sen. Kevin de León. The remaining 30 candidates on the ballot barely registered in either survey.

Despite an upset at this February’s state Democratic Party convention, where the party faithful failed to endorse Feinstein, surveyed Democrats were over three times more likely to back her than her progressive opponent, according to the PPIC poll. The magnitude was about the same in the USC survey.

Both polls show that roughly 40 percent of likely voters are still undecided in that race. Most are Republicans, a majority of whom say they are not satisfied with their choices. At the California GOP convention earlier this month, no one was even nominated for an endorsement. One candidate, a Holocaust denier who claims to be a Republican, was booted from the premises.

Different polls, different results

One of the most notable differences between the USC and PPIC polls is in the number of reported undecided voters in the governor’s race. The former suggests that more than one-in-three California voters have yet to make up their mind. The latter puts the share at 15 percent.

The difference probably boils down to methodology.

Whereas the PPIC poll offers only six options for governor candidates (plus “other” or “undecided”), the USC survey includes each of the 27 candidates who will be on the ballot. A list of that many names, most of them unknown to the average voter, has a way of eliciting a shrug from most survey respondents, says Jill Darling, survey director for the USC poll.

“It’s an overwhelming ballot,” she said. “I voted and it took me a while.”

Another difference is survey duration. Whereas the PPIC team collected their data in 10 days, pollsters at USC were surveying for a month, starting in mid-April. If it’s surprising that so many California voters are undecided two weeks out from election day, six weeks out is less so.

That long polling period wasn’t by design. Darling’s explanation: “To get a large sample requires a bit of time.”

Still, it’s an “awkward” way of gauging voter sentiment, said Paul Mitchell, a data analyst and vice president of Political Data Inc.

Polls are supposed to provide a “snapshot in time” of what the public thinks, he said. “This is more like one of those old-timey photographs where you have to stand still for a month.”

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In 2014, Silicon Valley venture capitalist and noted political eccentric Tim Draper sponsored a ballot initiative to divide California into six states. The effort failed, considered by many to be politically impractical and legally untenable. So Draper has scaled back his ambitions.

Now he wants to divide California in three—and this week the Secretary of State announced that Draper had gathered the requisite number of signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.

Legal uncertainties aside (and, boy, are there are a lot of them), this invites the obvious question: How did California’s “three states” vote in last week’s primary election?

Well, it was obvious to us anyway.

Fortunately for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and John Cox, the two candidates running for governor this November, their top two spots are secure—no matter which California they choose to run in. Two of them gave more votes to the existing California’s top vote-getter, Newsom. But the third would-be state favored Cox.

Under Draper’s proposition, a newly minted “Northern California” would encompass everything from the base of Silicon Valley and Merced to the Oregon Coast. A shrunk-down “California” would hug the coast from San Benito County to Los Angeles. The remainder would become “Southern California,” including San Diego, Orange County, and—for some reason—Fresno and Tulare.

Though Cox has a lead in Southern California, registered Democrats still make up the largest bloc of voters in all three states.

In other statewide races, the three hypothetical states were largely in agreement. In his campaign to remain the state’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra got the top spot—“North,” “South,” and in-between. Likewise, all three Californias backed Sen. Dianne Feinstein for her fifth full term.

Of course, election results are still not final; there are still over one million ballots to count. Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa may have hope yet of securing a win in coastal “California.”

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Ballots are still being counted, but last week’s election is already offering good news for Democrats hoping to take back the House of Representatives in November.

Not only did the party steer clear of its dreaded “shutout scenario,” in which an oversupply of candidates in some of the state’s most competitive races threatened to divide up the Democratic vote, leaving only Republicans to advance to the general election. The preliminary count also suggests that primary voters in certain high profile districts are much more inclined toward Democrats than they were in 2014.

That may or may not foretell a “blue wave” in California, but it does show that Republicans have their work cut out for them.

Why should the array of (mostly) leftward pointing arrows worry Republicans?

Comparing the June 2018 primary to the June primary in 2014, the share of the vote going towards Republican candidates has fallen dramatically in many of the very seats that Democrats are most hoping to flip this fall.

In the district along the border of Orange and San Diego counties represented by GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, who is retiring this year, a majority of primary voters cast their ballots for a Democrat.

A few more of the districts national Democrats have targeted are within spitting distance of a partisan break-even. In GOP Rep. Jeff Denham’s district in the Central Valley, Republicans cobbled together 52 percent of the vote (down from 59 percent in 2014). Likewise, in both Laguna Niguel and Palmdale, Rep. Mimi Walters and Rep. Steve Knight, the only Republicans running in their districts, got 52 percent of the vote as well.

That represents a big shift since 2014, the only other non-presidential election year in which a primary was held under the state’s new top-two system.

In Issa’s district, 16 candidates were vying to replace him in the lead up to June 5. The top two winners, Republican Diane Harkey and Democrat Mike Levin, won around 26 percent and 18 percent of the vote, respectively.

What would a head-to-head Harkey-Levin match-up look like without the 15 other competitors?

One way to guess is to tally up the share of the vote that went to all Republican candidates and compare it to the Democratic share. Assuming that the various supporters of Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, San Diego Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, and the other five Republicans running in that district are likely to fall behind their party’s candidate in the general election, that ought to give us a pretty good idea of what to expect in November.

And the results don’t look good for Harkey.

So far (and again, ballot are still being counted), the Republican candidates in Issa’s seat have garnered 48 percent of the vote. That’s compared to 51 percent for all the Democrats.

That’s also a steep decline from the 2014 primary share when Issa, running as the only Republican, won 61.9 percent of the vote.

Even in districts like Denham’s, Walters’, Knight’s, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s, where Republicans won slim majorities of last week’s vote, those margins may be a little too close for comfort for the GOP. Republicans tend to be more reliable primary voters than Democrats and political independents, so the Republican share of the vote is likely to be lower in most districts come November.

In 2014, for example, Republican vote share between the primary and general elections declined by an average of 1.3 percentage points. That was true of all California congressional races, excluding those where one party was shut out or where a candidate ran unopposed. Looking only at the most competitive races (again, excluding shutouts), the average decline in Republican support was 3.3 percentage points between June and November.

We’ll update this graphic as more ballots are counted.

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Election 2018

June 8, 2018 7:12 pm

With voter turnout up statewide, five California counties find new mail-in ballot system slows count

Photo by Robbie Short for CALmatters

After years of research, months of planning and weeks of voting, the training wheels for the Voters Choice Act flew off, and county registrars and state experts are still trying to figure out what happened.

All over the state, election day is slowly morphing into election week, and counting ballots is taking longer. By tonight, some 2.5 million ballots across California had not yet been tabulated—a consequence of more voters opting to vote by mail.

But for the five California counties that implemented the state Voters Choice Act, it’s been vote-by-mail on steroids—and delayed final results.

In an effort to improve voter turnout, those counties got rid of traditional neighborhood local polling places. Instead they mailed ballots to every registered voter, who then had 11 days to cast ballots or do anything voter-related at mega-voting centers. They could place ballots in mailboxes or in an array of dropboxes scattered throughout the county.

Nonetheless many voters waited until election day on Tuesday to turn in or mail in their ballots—leaving counties overrun with ballots waiting to be processed. By state law, ballots postmarked on or before election day will be tabulated if received up to three days after the election.

The numbers suggest that voter turnout statewide will reach 36 percent—a big improvement over the record-low turnout of 25 percent statewide in the last primary midterms, in 2014.

Tuesday’s turnout was similarly higher in the five counties using the new vote-center model: Sacramento, San Mateo, Nevada, Napa and Madera. Sacramento County, the largest, had a 30 percent turnout in 2014 and appears headed for a 46 percent turnout in Tuesday’s primary.

“We had hamper after hamper of these pink bags stuffed to the brim (with ballot envelopes),” said Alice Jarboe, interim registrar of Sacramento County, adding that her staff is working 10-hour days to try to keep up.  “It is a lot of work, and when we get these huge amounts back, we just throw more temps at it.”

Californians can expect later final election results.

“I was surprised at the number of people who waited to the last minute,” said Rebecca Martinez, registrar of voters for Madera County. “I thought more people would make use of the (extra days), but I found that you still have a lot of people who still like to go someplace to vote on Tuesday.”

Inevitably, there was some confusion as voters adjusted to a new system. Some voters said they had trouble figuring out where to go to vote and when they were open. By Tuesday afternoon, Nicole Jones, 24, said she was was on her third center in Sacramento after trying to vote in person at two others accepting drop-off ballots only.

Others welcomed the voting centers and dropboxes. “This is way easier,” Stephanie Bucknam, 33, who appreciated that she didn’t have to wait in line and could just drop off her ballot. Her old precinct had been converted to a voting center, so she didn’t have to make much of an adjustment.

“Flexibility can’t hurt when you’re trying to get more people to vote,” she said. 

For voters, voting by mail is straightforward: fill out your ballot, sign it and return it.

For elections employees, it’s like an assembly line. Once they receive ballots, they scan them into the system. Someone has to verify that the signature on the ballot envelope matches the signature of the registered voter. Once the signature is verified, elections officials can separate the ballots by precinct and prepare to run them through a machine that counts the votes. There’s not one machine that does it all. With mail-in or vote-by-mail ballots, humans play a large role making sure ballots are verified, sorted and make it into the counting machine.They are also there to troubleshoot if the machine goes awry.

In Sacramento County, it takes about 80 employees to operate at capacity, and it will still take weeks to process the outstanding ballots.

Equipment can be a barrier for counties. In the state budget now being finalized, the secretary of state’s office is requesting $134 million to  cover half the cost to update all counties’ voting equipment, assuming most counties switch to the vote center model.

“There’s probably a different solutions, depending on the county,” said James Schwab, planning guru for the secretary of state’s office. “Most counties need new voting equipment, and that will speed up the counting process.”

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