Just two months before election day, Gov. Jerry Brown holds a commanding lead in his bid for an unprecedented fourth term — and only one in four likely California voters can even identify his Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
Brown, a Democrat, leads Kashkari by 21 points among likely voters, with 57% saying they plan to cast a ballot for the governor or are leaning that way, compared with 36% for the GOP candidate.
Approval of Brown's job performance stands at 58% — his highest rating since he assumed office in 2011 and up 10 points from two years ago, when 48% of people likely to vote in 2012 approved of how he was handling his job.
In addition, there is strong support for one of the governor's top priorities, a proposal that California borrow $7.5 billion to pay for improvements in its aging water system, amid deepening concern about the drought gripping the state.
The findings underscore the steep climb Kashkari faces, particularly in a state where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans.
The 41-year-old former U.S. Treasury official, who ran the federal bank bailout, has struggled to raise money for widespread advertising in his effort to unseat the popular 76-year-old incumbent. Brown had more than $22 million in his war chest in June, the latest figure available.
Juan Carlos Reyes, a 46-year-old property manager who lives near Lake Tahoe, said he was surprised by his own inability to name the Republican candidate when asked during the survey.
"It would seem to me to be an indication he's not a strong candidate," said Reyes, who is registered without a party preference. "I should know his name. I watch enough TV."
Reyes said he leans toward Brown, because of his long experience in government.
Terry Anderson, a 44-year-old Democrat and real estate agent in Los Angeles, couldn't place Kashkari, either, and plans to vote for Brown.
"You might as well go with what you know," Anderson said.
Brown, whose political career stretches more than four decades, is widely known — 84% of likely voters identified him as the governor.
Kashkari's lack of recognition is unsurprising, given his campaign's limitations, said David Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican half of the bipartisan polling team.
"The guy hasn't run for office before. He hasn't spent a lot of money," Kanevsky said. "And in California, it's tough to break through."
Nevertheless, some respondents who could not name Kashkari said they would vote for him.
Marc Frelier, a 24-year-old hoping to become a tax agent in Los Angeles, said he was unenthusiastic about Brown's leadership.
"I don't necessarily think what he's done is bad … but it's time for new leadership," said Frelier, a registered Republican. "It's good to get fresh eyes."
Many voters are displeased with the state's overall direction — albeit less so than when Brown took office — but they clearly don't hold Brown responsible.
Nearly 50% of likely voters said the state was on the wrong track; 37% said California is heading in the right direction.
Brown is "very well-liked, given the challenging environment," said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the survey's Democratic pollster.
Brown and lawmakers worked together to forge the water bond measure, Proposition 1 on the November ballot, and 64% of likely voters said they support it.
When informed about the costs of repaying the money — an estimated $560 million annually over 40 years — support slid slightly. But the voters still favored it by 27 points.
The firm backing comes as Californians are increasingly worried about the impact of the drought: 51% of registered voters called it a crisis, a significant jump from 21% who described it that way a year ago. The percentage of respondents who considered it a crisis was even higher among likely voters.
In addition, 60% of registered voters said their region had restrictions on household water use, up from 17% last September. Twenty-two percent said the drought was having a major impact on their families.
The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll was conducted by telephone among 1,507 registered California voters Sept. 2 through 8.
The margin of error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points overall and 3.3 points for those mostly likely to cast ballots in the general election.