California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, the only major candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer, is unknown by more than half the state's registered voters, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
Even more — six in 10 — have no impression of her, favorable or dim.
The primary election is more than a year away, giving Harris, a Democrat, ample opportunity to raise enough money to introduce herself to California's nearly 18 million registered voters. But voters' lack of knowledge about Harris — a state official since 2011 — presents an opportunity for a challenger.
"She's not some huge titan," said Dave Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican half of the bipartisan team that conducted the survey. "She by no means has this election locked up more than a year in advance."
Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the Democratic polling firm, agreed but noted that Harris led the field of potential candidates in the poll and had strong approval ratings among voters who knew her.
"I wouldn't trade her starting position for anyone else's," he said.
Harris announced her candidacy last month, within days of Boxer's announcement that she would not seek reelection, and has since been holding fundraisers and securing endorsements.
In addition, the best known politician who was considering the race, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, announced this week that he would not run. The survey shows that he would have entered the race trailing Harris.
And although more than six in 10 respondents could identify him, unfavorable impressions of him were twice as high as for Harris. Voters preferred Harris over Villaraigosa by nine percentage points in a multi-candidate field.
Such a gap could have been overcome, said poll director Dan Schnur, head of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, pointing to the strong support Villaraigosa received among one of the fastest-growing voter groups: Latinos.
A bid by Villaraigosa "would not have been a suicide mission by any stretch of the imagination," Schnur said.
In a head-to-head match, Harris drew 45% support, compared with 27% for Villaraigosa, according to the poll.
Harris' advisors have clearly recognized her lack of a statewide profile. In the final days of her 2014 reelection campaign, in which she faced no serious threat, Harris' campaign spent more than $1 million advertising on television outside of her Bay Area home base.
Not surprisingly, some of Harris' strongest support comes from Bay Area voters, 45% of whom said they plan to vote for her in the June 2016 Senate primary. Harris, who is half black, also polls well among African American voters, 50% of whom support her. And 38% of voters with at least one college degree said they would vote for her.
Harris received more support from women and those over 50 than did any of the seven possible candidates tested: Both groups favored her at 29%, the poll shows.
Kim Ganz, 50, of San Jose said it was important that a woman retain the seat Boxer won in 1992, known in politics as the "Year of the Woman" because a record number of females were elected to the U.S. Senate.
"I'm very sorry to see Barbara Boxer go," said Ganz, a physical therapy assistant. "I do think it's important to have a woman go into that seat, not just to represent us, but you carry on the legacy."
But Ganz added that her support of Harris goes beyond gender and is based on her work as the state's top law-enforcement official.
The poll of 1,505 registered voters, conducted for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and The Times, took place Feb. 18-24, ending on the day Villaraigosa announced his decision not to run for U.S. Senate. The margin of error is 2.7 points in either direction, and higher for subgroups.
Had he run, Villaraigosa would have entered the race as Harris' most potent threat, despite her better showing, the survey shows.
He received support from 19% of respondents, compared to Harris' 28%. Notably, he trailed Harris in Los Angeles County, 24% to 28%. But more than four in 10 Latinos said they would back Villaraigosa, while 14% preferred Harris.
Martin Garcia, 20, said the historic possibility of electing a Latino senator from California was one reason he would have strongly supported the former mayor.
"It shows … we can be someone," said the Compton resident, who is studying architecture at Cal Poly Pomona.
When he was younger, Garcia said, he saw Villaraigosa as mayor and thought, "I want to be just like him."
Several others are said to be weighing a Senate run, and those named in the survey drew only single-digit support when respondents made their first choice. Among those possible contenders, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin received the biggest nod, with 9%.
Swearengin unsuccessfully ran for state controller in 2014, and her advisor has said that she is likely to forgo a Senate run to seek executive office in 2018. But among registered Republicans, she is the top choice for Senate, with 23% of their vote.
Republican registration is so low in the state — 28% — that prospects for a GOP victory in the race are considered slim.
Still, 56-year-old Republican Michael Marshall of Firebaugh, 40 miles outside Fresno, said he would support Swearengin for a change of direction.
California's Democratic senators have failed the drought-parched Central Valley, he said — though he was skeptical of Swearengin's viability against politicians from larger cities.
"They have a bigger population base, and that gives you a better chance," he said.