The Times Poll : Deukmejian Widens Lead Over Bradley

Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

Gov. George Deukmejian, campaigning vigorously for reelection, substantially increased his lead over Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley during a crucial seven-week period when Bradley agonized over whether to support California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, The Times Poll has found.

The governor’s big gain in poll standings, from early February to late March, apparently also was aided by his advisers’ strategic decision to spend $792,825 on a three-week, statewide blitz of television advertising. And while the governor was being shown in upbeat TV commercials promoting his first-term record, he simultaneously was traveling up and down the state blasting Bradley’s indecision on Bird.

When Bradley finally did take a position last week on the controversial chief justice, his decision to remain neutral in her reelection campaign may well have been the best move for him. But the long delay in making up his mind already had taken its toll on the Democratic challenger.

Times Poll telephone interviews with 1,234 registered California voters between March 22 and 27 found Deukmejian to be comfortably leading Bradley by 17 percentage points, 53% to 36%, with 11% undecided.


By contrast, a similar Times survey taken between Jan. 29 and Feb. 4 showed the Republican incumbent holding only a slim six-point lead, 46% to 40%, with 14% unsure.

The margin of error for the latest survey is three points in either direction.

Coincidentally, nearly identical findings were released Tuesday by the independent California Poll, which showed Deukmejian leading Bradley by 16 points, 55% to 39%, with 6% undecided. California Poll director Mervin Field found that Deukmejian had doubled his point spread over Bradley since last November.

Times Poll director I. A. Lewis said that Bradley undoubtedly hurt himself in public esteem by taking several weeks to decide neither to support nor oppose Bird, whom he had endorsed in her 1978 campaign. “His ultimate statement undoubtedly represented the best political damage control available to him,” Lewis said, “but I suspect it could have been a lot more effective if he had made it a lot earlier.”


The Times survey found that if Bradley had endorsed Bird, his support among voters would have dropped by a net 24 points. Thirty-two percent of those surveyed said they would have been “less likely” to vote for him, while only 8% would have been “more likely.”

If he had opposed Bird, Bradley would have gained a net 10 points, at least in the short term. But what could not be reflected in these interviews was the effect of subsequent attacks that Deukmejian certainly would have leveled at his opponent for “flip-flopping” from his 1978 position. And Bradley, already scrambling for scarce campaign cash, also probably would have lost significant backing from his liberal core of political financiers.

The neutral option that Bradley chose stands to cost him a net six points, the survey found. But this is barely significant statistically, given a three-point margin of error.

Because of Bradley’s fence-straddling stance, 18% said they would be less likely to vote for him and 12% would be more likely. For 65%, however, it would have “no effect one way or the other.”


Bird, under attack from Deukmejian and countless other critics because of her court decisions against the death penalty, continues to wage an unpopular, uphill struggle in her bid for another 12-year term as chief justice. And, not coincidentally, Californians continue to overwhelmingly support the death penalty, by a nearly 6-1 ratio in this survey.

Breakdown on Bird

Among those interviewed by The Times Poll, 55% said they would vote against Bird if the November election were held today. Only 31% would vote for her, and 14% were undecided. This negative spread of 24 points was nearly identical to a 23-point deficit found in the early February survey.

Asked their overall impressions of Bird, the registered voters were unfavorable by a margin of more than 2 to 1. Even among Democrats, presumably her philosophical constituents, the impressions were 4 to 3 unfavorable.


Likewise, voters by more than 2 to 1 disapproved of the way Bird was handing her job as chief justice.

None of this unpopularity, however, seemed to be rubbing off adversely on the five other justices seeking reelection to the state Supreme Court. The five--Joseph Grodin, Malcolm Lucas, Stanley Mosk, Edward Panelli and Cruz Reynoso--all enjoyed clear margins of support, although roughly half of the voters said they still were undecided on these contests.

Comfortable Margins

Reynoso and Grodin, the most controversial of the other justices, were ahead by 14 and 22 points, respectively. Panelli was ahead by 30 points, and Mosk and Lucas by 29 points each.


This represents a marked improvement for each of the five justices over their standings in the last Times Poll.

Voters overwhelmingly favored California’s system of requiring state Supreme Court justices to face them at the ballot box at least once every 12 years. By a 5-1 ratio, they chose California’s requirement over the U.S. Supreme Court system, where justices are appointed for life.

In the gubernatorial race, Bradley fared best in his home base of Los Angeles County, where he trailed Deukmejian by a mere five-point margin--47% to 42%, with 11% undecided. But Deukmejian’s best regions were in the remainder of Southern California, where he held a landslide 36-point lead--62% to 26%, with 12% undecided.

Bradley closed the gap to nine points in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the governor led 47% to 38%, with 15% undecided. But in the rest of Northern California, Deukmejian led by 21 points--57% to 36%, with 7% undecided.


People Satisfied

One of the most important sources of Deukmejian’s present strength is the attitude of many voters--36% of them--that “things in California are going in the right direction today.” Only 14% believe “things have gotten off on the wrong track.” The rest think the state’s direction is “somewhere in between.”

The upshot is that relatively few people seem to find a compelling reason for tossing the incumbent governor out of office.

Those interviewed gave Deukmejian higher marks than Bradley on his ability “to get things done” and “do the best job of appointing judges.”


Bradley scored better than Deukmejian, however, on the question of who “would do the best job of handling toxic waste problems"--which so far has been the mayor’s best campaign issue.