California voters are almost evenly split on whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis, and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante retains a narrow lead over Arnold Schwarzenegger in the tightening race for a successor, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.
Likely voters in the Oct. 7 election support the ouster of Davis by 50% to 47%, with just 3% undecided, the poll found. The result, a statistical tossup, is virtually unchanged from an August Times poll.
The Democratic governor remains highly unpopular, but by at least one measure, his standing has improved: 63% of likely voters disapprove of his job performance, down from 72% in last month's poll.
More volatile than the referendum on Davis is the contest for a replacement. Bustamante, the only well-known Democrat in the race, leads with 30%, followed by two Republicans: Schwarzenegger with 25% and state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks with 18%. McClintock, a conservative under pressure from Schwarzenegger loyalists to drop out of the race, has gained ground since August, when he drew support from 12% of likely voters. Schwarzenegger's support ticked upward three percentage points, from 22%. Bustamante dropped five points. All of the shifts, however, are near or within the poll's margin of sampling error.
As the election approaches, many Republicans have grown fearful that McClintock and Schwarzenegger will divide their party's vote, handing the election to Bustamante and dashing their hopes of regaining power in a state dominated by Democrats.
Still, the poll found troubles emerging for Bustamante as voters learn more about him. His unfavorable rating surged from 29% in the August poll to 50% in the new one. Rivals have been hammering Bustamante for taking more than $3 million in campaign money from Indian tribes that run casinos — and for refusing to distance himself from a Latino student group that critics view as radical.
Poll respondent Wanda Starman, 65, a Democrat who lives in Poway, outside San Diego, said in a follow-up interview that Bustamante's campaign fund-raising had soured her on the lieutenant governor.
"He's just going to do what it takes to get there, and I don't think ethics has a lot to do with it," said Starman, who prefers political commentator Arianna Huffington as a Davis successor.
Huffington, a former Republican who is running to Bustamante's left, is the favorite of 3% of likely voters, followed by Green Party candidate Peter Miguel Camejo with 2%. Neither has substantially altered their standing in recent weeks. Peter V. Ueberroth, the Republican businessman who abandoned his campaign Tuesday in the middle of the survey, drew support from 8% of likely voters.
The Times Poll, supervised by polling Director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 2,249 adults statewide Sept. 6-10. Among them were 1,553 registered voters, including 922 deemed likely to vote in the recall election. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three points among likely voters.
Though predicting who will turn out to vote is an imprecise science, the unprecedented nature of the recall makes it even more difficult this time. The sheer number of voters who will cast ballots, however, appeared at this point not to determine the outcome: The poll found the race was up in the air in scenarios projecting anywhere from a low to a high turnout.
Among the poll's most striking findings was the return of immigration as an issue that voters see as important for the governor to address. The state's fiscal troubles remain the top issue, followed by education and the economy. Immigration — and a new law signed by Davis to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants — is fourth, listed as important by one in six voters.
Davis and Bustamante have used their support of the driver's license law to appeal to Latinos; Schwarzenegger and McClintock have called it a threat to public safety.
Ray Bright, 82, a retired Republican aerospace mechanic from Buena Park, said Schwarzenegger's stand against the measure was one of the key reasons he is backing the actor for governor.
"I'm not opposed to Mexicans, but the ones who come here illegally, there's too many of them here," Bright said.
Overall, the poll found California's electorate in a foul mood. With the state's economy stalled since the dot-com bust of 2000, nearly three out of four likely voters say things in California are seriously off on the wrong track. Though the pessimism is largely bipartisan, voters split sharply along party lines when it came to the recall, with 83% of Republicans backing the ouster of Davis and 79% of Democrats against it. Independents are virtually split on the recall of Davis, but their enthusiasm has waned since August, when nearly two out of three of them supported it.
Party loyalty aside, support for the recall remains strongest among conservatives, men, and voters in the Central Valley, the Inland Empire and other parts of Southern California outside Los Angeles County. Opposition is strongest among liberals, women and voters in Los Angeles County and the Bay Area.
Senior citizens, who typically vote in heavy numbers, are split, 48% to 48%. Among moderates, once the bulwark of Davis' political base, 43% support the recall and 53% are opposed.
The first part of the recall ballot is a yes-or-no question on whether to dump Davis as governor. To stay in office, he needs a majority vote against the recall. The second part is a list of 135 candidates vying to succeed Davis. If voters kick him out of office, the replacement candidate with the highest number of votes will take his job. Californians can pick a successor regardless of their vote on the Davis referendum.
For weeks, Davis has focused above all on bolstering his Democratic support. A renowned centrist, he has tacked leftward, supporting — among other things — new gay-rights legislation and the driver's license bill, which he had previously resisted but now touts in a Spanish-language television ad.
Yet nearly one in five Democrats still favor the recall, largely because more of the state's moderate Democrats have moved from undecided on the recall to favoring it.
And despite Davis' close ties to organized labor, a majority of likely voters in union households supports it too.
Among the most worrisome trends for Davis: 53% of Latinos favor the recall, up from 39% last month. Dominic E. Garcia, 30, a Democrat who studies music at Sacramento City College, is leaning toward a yes vote; he blames Davis for a sharp rise in college tuition.
"It's made a horrendous difference," Garcia said. "He's created a hardship for everybody."
A big challenge for Davis is Bustamante's presence on the ballot. Bustamante has called for a no vote on the recall, but he also has sniped at the governor and shunned any public appearances with him.
A risk for Davis is that Bustamante supporters — particularly Latinos — will favor the recall to benefit the lieutenant governor. The poll found that might be occurring: 27% of the Latinos who back Bustamante plan to vote yes on the recall. Among all likely voters who back Bustamante, 8% plan to vote yes on the recall.
For Bustamante, Latinos are a core constituency. Nearly half of likely Latino voters plan to vote for him, although a hearty 29% side with Schwarzenegger and 13% with McClintock. One in four Latinos say they are more likely to back Bustamante because he would be California's first Latino governor since 1875.
Yet he has not broadened his reach significantly. He has the support of one in four whites and falls well behind Schwarzenegger in the Central Valley. While he carries a quarter of male voters, about the same as the two leading Republicans, he is aided by a gender gap, drawing the support of more than a third of women voters — well ahead of any of his opponents.
Schwarzenegger's close association with former Gov. Pete Wilson may have harmed his standing among Latinos, the poll suggests. More than half of likely Latino voters — and three in 10 white voters — say they are less inclined to vote for Schwarzenegger because Wilson and several of his top former advisors are now on the actor's campaign team.
Wilson's standing among many Latinos plummeted after he led the campaign for Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure aimed at denying public services to illegal immigrants.
"He'd basically be a little puppet for Pete Wilson's regime of Republicans," Garcia said.
Also problematic for Schwarzenegger is a perception that he has been too vague. More than two out of three likely voters said the action-film star had tried to avoid taking positions on important issues.
More than four out of 10 likely voters say Schwarzenegger's decision to participate in no more than one debate made them less likely to vote for him; 55% say it makes no difference, according to the poll.
"I think he may be dodging some of the questions," said Republican Mary Loy Canaday, 80, a retired Rancho Mirage secretary.
Likely voters are divided, 45% to 44%, on whether Schwarzenegger fits his own description as an outsider who could bring needed reform to Sacramento.
"If anyone has a chance to take a quick hit on improving the state, and not having to rely on special interests for campaign dollars, I think he, at least, has that in mind," said Republican Bryan Turriff, 32, a Santa Monica software marketing manager.
Schwarzenegger scored highest of the candidates — including Davis — on the question of whether he would be a strong leader for California.
But on the question of which candidate has the best experience for the job, Davis led the field with 35%, followed by McClintock, 25%, and Bustamante, 20%. Schwarzenegger was at the bottom with 1%.
Schwarzenegger "has no experience running anything, politically, so I don't think he'd be a good match for the state, and so far he hasn't given any details on what he's going to do," said Compton Democrat Don Montenegro, 23, a computer support specialist.
Despite Schwarzenegger's inability so far to capture more than one in four likely voters in the governor's race, his general popularity rating has improved since August, a span in which he began television advertising. Among likely voters, 52% have a favorable impression of him, up from 46% last month, while 38% have an unfavorable view of him, down from 44%.
Men, though, have a far better impression of Schwarzenegger than women do: 58% of likely male voters view him favorably, a sentiment shared by only 45% of likely female voters.
For McClintock, a major challenge is persuading voters to elect a governor whose political profile is more conservative than the state's as a whole.
He has promised to reduce taxes and government spending by billions of dollars, and he opposes legal abortion, gun control and gay rights — social views that are largely at odds with the state's.
Nearly half of likely voters say McClintock is more conservative than they are.
Bright, the Buena Park Republican who backs Schwarzenegger, said McClintock was his "real choice," but "a true conservative can never get elected in this state; the state is too damn liberal."
But 46% of likely voters have a favorable impression of McClintock, twice the percentage that views him unfavorably. And 54% of likely voters agree that McClintock is straightforward and says what he believes, even if it is unpopular.
Jill Darling Richardson, associate director of The Times Poll, and Claudia Vaughn, the poll's data management supervisor, contributed to this report.