News Analysis

By Drew Phelps

An online USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released Thursday analyzed the races for California’s Senate seat and governor approximately one year before Election Day 2018.

Many observers consider the USC/Times poll to be one of the more reliable polls following its prediction of a Trump victory in 2016, something many pollsters missed.

In this statewide iteration, researchers maintained an online-only administration methodology and conducted the poll among a sample of 1,504 eligible California voters (208 respondents were unregistered as of polling time).

While the results of the poll offered few surprises, it did shed some light on the development of these two key races.

Feinstein Holds Strong Lead Over de León

Perhaps one of the biggest question marks heading into the poll was the President Pro Tem of the California Senate, Kevin de León, and his announcement that he is running to challenge longtime Sen.  Dianne Feinstein in 2018.

After a September PPIC poll showed support for Feinstein slipping among Golden State voters – before she announced her reelection bid, 46% said she should not run again compared to 41% in favor – some believed that de León would pose a serious challenge to her incumbency.

These results, though far from final, show that this possibility is less likely than Feinstein’s weaker returns in September seemed to indicate. Head-to-head numbers against de León show a healthy 58.2% to 31.4% lead for Feinstein. This lead remains strong across the board, essentially regardless of demographic and geographic controls.

The race is still expected by many to accentuate the apparent divide in California politics between more moderate Democrats and ‘progressives.’ De León is considered by most to be the more progressive candidate due to his criticism of Feinstein’s remarks about Trump’s potential to “be a good president,” and his willingness to throw his name behind popular left-wing issues like single-payer healthcare and the recently-passed ‘sanctuary state’ law.

Today, news broke that four of eleven San Francisco supervisors, representatives of the city Feinstein used to govern as mayor, chose to endorse de León, creating perhaps a more concrete indication of shift in support among progressives, even in Feinstein’s wheelhouse.

However, the numbers presented in the USC/Times poll tell a different story. Even in the ultra-liberal Bay Area (PPIC identified it as essentially the only “loyal liberal” region in California), Feinstein slightly exceeded her overall share of 58%, drawing 61.5% support in her native region.

Competition in Governor’s Race

In the perhaps more competitive gubernatorial race, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom holds an approximate 10-point lead over his nearest challenger, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (31.1% to Villaraigosa’s 20.7%).

Following the top two candidates are the top Republican, Assemblyman Travis Allen (15%), State Treasurer John Chiang (12%), businessman John Cox (11.4%), and former Assemblywoman and State Superintendent of Schools Delaine Eastin (4.1%).

Compared to the most recent poll gauging the race (published by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies), which included “undecided” as a response and presented a 23%-12% lead for Newsom over Villaraigosa, these results likely paint a better picture of what the outcome would be if the election were held today.

Due to California’s top-two primary system and Democrats’ solid registration advantage, many expect the June primary to narrow the field to two Democrats – Newsom and either Villaraigosa or Chiang.

As a result, the challenger to Newsom, who has already occupied the leftist lane in the race, will have to appeal to moderates and Republicans to pose a threat.

In this sense, the Central Valley could end up playing an outsized role in the race. Both Villaraigosa and Chiang poll relatively well among Republicans, with 5.3% and 4.5% of Republicans, respectively, already choosing them as their preferred candidate. Meanwhile, Newsom garners only 2.9% of Republican support. This means that Villaraigosa and Chiang have more crossover appeal: When presented with no other option but Newsom, Republicans may be comfortable sacrificing some of their values for a more moderate governor.

If Villaraigosa is the challenger, Central Valley votes will be even more integral to an upset victory.

While Newsom holds support of 21.8% of Central Valley voters, Villaraigosa is second with 14.4% and would likely be able build a more powerful coalition by pulling some of the Republican support from voters who supported Allen or Cox in the primary (11.6% support Allen and 12.1% support Cox).

Despite appearing to gain ground though, Villaraigosa’s support currently sits largely in an unreliable constituency. He draws most of his support from voters who are lower-income, younger, Latino, or some combination of the three.

These groups make up a significant portion of the California electorate, yet have typically shown issues with turnout.

Villaraigosa polls closely to Newsom among 18-34 year-olds (17% to 18.7%, respectively) and 35-44 year-olds (22.1% to 23.8%), but Newsom has a 13-point advantage among voters over 45.

Among those making less than $50,000 annually, Villaraigosa leads 24-18%, whereas Newsom is up 27.6%-12.4% for those earning more than $50,000.

Finally, among Latinos, Villaraigosa holds a significant advantage: 30.1% to 15.6%.

However, when drilling deeper, we can see that Newsom pulls much closer among older Latinos who are more likely to vote (24.3% for Villaraigosa to Newsom’s 23.3%).

Essentially, these numbers mean that, in order to win, Villaraigosa (or another challenger) will need to both collect a substantial number of Republican votes and mobilize voters who will likely support Villaraigosa but are less likely to show up on Election Day.

What to Watch

One of the key trends observers are highlighting following Tuesday’s Democratic romp was the improved turnout among groups like those Villaraigosa needs to target to win (particularly moderates). While demographic numbers will trickle in as time goes on, it seems clear that Democrats who were not previously engaged were mobilized in this election.

Another good sign for Villaraigosa is what motivated those voters to hit the polls. Early exit polls from Virginia indicate that healthcare, an issue which concerns us all, but particularly lower-income voters, was by far the top issue for voters there.

If Villaraigosa can get out a solid, consistent message on healthcare to these lower-income voters, he could move the needle on their traditionally low turnout levels.

With the state of our healthcare system still uncertain in the current political climate, it is unlikely to go away as an important issue any time soon.

Tom Steyer

Another noticeable trend is California billionaire Tom Steyer’s continuous involvement in races around the country. After spending more than anyone else in the 2016 election ($75 million), he spent $3.3 million leading up to Virginia’s Tuesday election.

While the possibility still exists that he will mount a Senate run against Feinstein and de León, a turn that would change the formula for candidates across the ballot, Steyer will be intricately involved in 2018 elections – in California and abroad.

Specifically for this analysis though, Steyer’s involvement at home will likely play to Villaraigosa’s advantage.

Assuming that ‘flipping’ competitive Republican-held Congressional districts will be his primary goal, Steyer will produce his most aggressive efforts in Central Valley and Orange County districts.

According to the USC/Times poll, Villaraigosa stands to gain the most from higher Democrat turnout in these areas: demographically, he needs lower-income, Latino votes from the Central Valley and Orange County/San Diego is one of the few regions where he holds an advantage to Newsom – Villaraigosa’s 19.8% to Newsom’s 12.7%.

The effect Steyer may have on the governor’s race is vague thus far, but initial analysis tells us that his efforts, though likely unintentional, will improve Villaraigosa’s chances for victory.

What’s the Gist?

Overall, though the Senate race may serve to further divide the Democratic Party within California, Feinstein should achieve a fairly easy reelection given her enormous name value and her immense fundraising power as a longtime party leader.

The governor’s race, though also seemingly dominated by a candidate with name recognition and piles of cash, will likely be more competitive. Newsom’s challenger will have a tremendous task before them to achieve the upset, but the USC/Times poll indicates that it is possible.

This race will revolve around turnout and, if the political undercurrents drive certain groups to turn out at higher rates than others, Villaraigosa or another challenger could stand a chance and prevent a coronation.

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