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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.”