Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is coasting to a historic fourth term with record-high approval ratings, and the ballot measures that he has made the centerpiece of his reelection bid — a water bond and a rainy-day fund — are also supported by a majority of likely voters, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
Republicans nationwide appear poised for major victories on Tuesday, but California once again is an outlier, with Democrats likely to maintain their iron grip on Sacramento. The party's candidates led their GOP rivals in every statewide contest, the poll found.
The closest race was the near dead heat to be the state's nonpartisan schools chief. The incumbent, State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, had a slim edge — 32% to 29% — among likely voters over former charter school executive Marshall Tuck.
But 28% of voters remained undecided in the contest, which pits Democrat against Democrat and has become the most expensive for the statewide offices this year. More than $30 million has been spent on what is typically a sleepy race, as Torlakson benefits from his support among organized labor and Tuck from wealthy donors who want to overhaul the state's schools.
"There is no precedent for this," said poll director Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "I can't think of a campaign for any down-ticket office in recent California history that's received so much attention."
"Some of that is the relative lack of competition at the top of the ballot. ... But a lot of it is the emergence of education as such a top-tier issue for California voters," he said, noting that education has surpassed jobs and the economy as voters' top concern.
Republicans' closest race was for secretary of state, with state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) holding a narrow lead over Republican think-tank director Pete Peterson, 45% to 41%.
Padilla "is in a position to win here, but he's underperforming the Democratic partisanship of the state," said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the Democratic half of the bipartisan team that conducted the poll.
Voters have little to go on in the race aside from ballot designations, Lieberman said, potentially giving Peterson an advantage. Padilla "is tied directly to the state Senate, which we know from other polling is not viewed particularly favorably. Peterson arguably has the most appealing ballot designation — educator and institute director."
Republicans, who have not elected a candidate to statewide office since 2006, have cited that race and one for state controller as their best chances for breaking the losing streak. But GOP controller candidate Ashley Swearengin, the mayor of Fresno, was eight points behind her Democratic rival, Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, according to the poll.
In the rest of the statewide contests, likely voters favored Democrats over Republicans by double digits.
Among incumbents seeking reelection, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was 17 points ahead of former state GOP chairman Ron Nehring; Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris led attorney Ron Gold by 14 points; and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones had an 11-point edge over state Sen. Ted Gaines.
In the race to be the state's next treasurer, Democrat John Chiang, currently state controller, led accountant Greg Conlon by 18 points.
Brown, who has barely campaigned for reelection, had the largest advantage, with 56% of likely voters; his little-known GOP rival, Neel Kashkari, had the backing of 37%. Late last year Brown became the longest-serving California governor; he was previously elected in 1974, 1978 and 2010.
Six in 10 voters approved of Brown's job performance, the highest level since he took office in January 2011. Likely voters of all races, genders, ages, incomes and education levels, and residents of nearly every part of the state, favored Brown over Kashkari.
Eduardo Delgadillo represents the strong support Brown received from registered Democrats, Latinos, Bay Area residents and the young.
Brown, 76, first drew the 21-year-old's eye four years ago, when Delgadillo was a high school senior in Union City.
"He caught my interest because he looks like Eisenhower," said Delgadillo, a senior majoring in history at UC Davis. Delgadillo studied Brown's first terms as governor and appreciated his frugality, "the way he spoke and his demeanor."
In his current term, Delgadillo said, Brown has fought rising college tuition while tackling the state's most vexing problems, including the drought and state finances.
"He's doing a good job. He brought the deficit down and created a surplus," Delgadillo said. "I liked Jerry Brown before, and I couldn't vote for him when I was 17. I'm glad to vote for him now."
Brown's popularity appeared to benefit his two priorities on the November ballot. Six in 10 supported a $7.5-billion water bond measure, and 54% favored the rainy-day fund proposal, known respectively as Propositions 1 and 2.
The support stemmed from the absence of significant opposition to the measures as well as their timing, pollsters said — coming after years of pre-Brown budget debacles and as Californians are seeing firsthand the impact of the drought.
"Voters are willing to pass propositions when they see significant problems that need resolution," said Dave Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican polling firm that helped conduct the bipartisan survey.
Support for Brown's priorities also reflected voters' belief that he is better suited than Kashkari to tackle nearly every issue affecting the state, from poverty and drought to education and the economy.
Kashkari has seized on the state's costly high-speed-rail program to argue that Brown is out of touch. But while they oppose the program, likely voters preferred Brown's approach on the bullet train to Kashkari's, 37% to 31%. The sole issue on which the candidates' effectiveness was perceived as close was taxes, where Brown edged Kashkari by 1 point.
Kashkari, 41, a first-time candidate best known for running the $700-billion federal bailout of Wall Street, narrowly led Brown in two conservative geographic swaths — the Central Valley and the rural lands north of Sacramento. The bulk of Kashkari's support came from likely Republican voters, three-quarters of whom said they support him. One was Steven Phipps, a maintenance worker from Bakersfield.
"He's not Brown," said the 57-year-old, explaining that his conservative views on social issues led him to cast his ballot for Kashkari. "Other than Obama, I think [Brown's] one of the most evil people I've ever seen."
But Kashkari has failed to consolidate the GOP vote, a critical necessity for a Republican candidate in California; nearly one in five likely Republican voters supported Brown.
Part of that is due to the fact that with only days to go before the election, most voters still had no idea who Kashkari was. Seven in 10 likely voters could not identify him, the poll found.
"Who the hell is he? Who knows anything at all about him?" said Timothy Nealon, 67, a registered Republican from El Cajon who plans to cast his ballot for Brown.
The governor "has been OK, not great, not good, and I haven't agreed with everything he's done, that's for darn sure," the retired aerospace engineer said, citing gun control. But "he's the lesser of two evils."
The poll, which was conducted for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times, questioned 1,537 registered voters from Oct. 22 through 29. The margin of error for likely voters was 3.3 points in either direction, and higher for subgroups.