Republican businessman John Cox has nudged ahead of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for second place in California's race for governor, while Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has shored up his front-runner status among voters, according to a new poll from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
The survey released Wednesday night also found that Sen. Dianne Feinstein continues to hold a sizable lead in her reelection bid over fellow Democrat and former state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León of Los Angeles.
With the June 5 primary approaching, Cox's rising fortunes in the governor's race should be well received by Newsom — facing a Republican in the November election will likely increase his odds for victory. No Republican has been elected to statewide office in California since 2006, and Democrats currently hold an edge of nearly 20 percentage points over the GOP in voter registration.
With Newsom's comfortable lead in the polls and fundraising, the governor's race now appears to be a contest for second place — sufficient to advance to the general election under California's top-two primary system. Predicting which candidates will make the cut is another matter. A quarter of likely voters in the state remain undecided, making the race extremely volatile, PPIC President Mark Baldassare said.
According to the poll, Newsom leads the field with 28% support among likely voters. Cox was favored by 14% and Villaraigosa, a Democrat, by 12%, a narrow difference within the margin of error. Among the remaining candidates included in the poll, Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) was supported by 10% of likely voters, state Treasurer John Chiang was favored by 6% and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin by 5%. Chiang and Eastin are Democrats.
Democrat Amanda Renteria, a top advisor to Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, jumped into the race in February and was not included in the poll.
Cox, a wealthy Rancho Santa Fe attorney and accountant, has poured $4 million into his campaign, eight times the amount raised by Allen, his biggest rival in the GOP field. Cox already has spent more than $1.5 million, including a $200,000 ad on Fox News in California.
"Cox fits the mold of a Republican candidate for governor," Baldassare said. "He's a Republican businessperson who is saying [he wants] lower taxes and less regulation."
Support for Villaraigosa dropped significantly since the PPIC's poll conducted in January, when he was running neck and neck with Newsom and when Cox lagged far behind both Democrats. Baldassare said Californians have become more focused on the governor's race, which probably led to the shift.
"At this point, three months before the election, it's about who the candidates are and what they stand for," he said.
The March poll was the PPIC's first in this election cycle to list each of the candidate's official ballot designations, or job descriptions, that Californians will see when they vote.
Villaraigosa was described in the poll questionnaire as a "public policy advisor" and not as the former mayor of Los Angeles, for which he is best known. Newsom's ballot designation, in contrast, was "Lieutenant Governor/Businessman."
Under California election law, candidates must use descriptions of their "profession, vocation or occupation." Villaraigosa has been a consultant for several businesses, including Herbalife and Banc of California, since he left the mayor's office in 2013. Eastin, who served as state superintendent of public instruction from 1995 to 2003, listed her ballot designation as "educator/Youth Advocate." Her standing in the polls stayed relatively consistent when compared to the January survey, when she was described as the former state schools chief.
Paul Mitchell, who runs the data firm Political Data Inc., doubts ballot designations will have much of an impact in a such a premier, highly publicized race. Villaraigosa is well known in California, and his name recognition will only grow once the governor's race hits the home stretch and airwaves are flooded with campaign ads, he said.
"These campaigns haven't actually happened yet," Mitchell said. "If you're a high-turnout primary voter in California, you're probably making up your decision before you go to the ballot box."
Mitchell likened the PPIC poll to the ongoing NCAA college basketball tournament, when fans fill in brackets and pick winners of every game before the first tipoff. A lot can change between the first round and the championship, he said.
Voters will have 27 names to choose from in the governor's race, including 11 Democrats and five Republicans. Because the majority of them have not been included in any public polls, it's unclear how much support they will win or whether they will pull votes away from any of the better-known candidates.
In the Senate race, the poll found that Feinstein leads in all slices of the California electorate: among men and women, all income groups, in all major geographic regions of the state and all ethnicities, including Latinos. Feinstein also leads in Los Angeles County, home to De León's state Senate district.
The survey found that 42% of likely voters backed Feinstein, compared with 16% who supported De León.
Still, De León does have some momentum. In February, the California Democratic Party overwhelmingly decided not to endorse Feinstein, a major rebuke for a senator who has represented California for more than two decades. De León won 54% of the delegates' votes, just short of the 60% needed to secure the endorsement, while Feinstein received 37%.
De León has been endorsed by the powerful Service Employees International Union and California Nurses Assn.