Although Dianne Feinstein is the current favorite of ordinary voters, the political junkies who will be delegates to the Democratic state convention in Los Angeles this weekend think John K. Van de Kamp should be the party's gubernatorial nominee, The Times Poll has found.
That is the bright side for Van de Kamp. The dark side for the attorney general is that his support among the delegates seems to be falling far short of the 60% convention vote needed to win the party's formal endorsement, interviews showed.
While this might be of only passing interest to millions of voters, the convention's failure to endorse a gubernatorial candidate would be viewed as significant within the Democratic hierarchy and be somewhat embarrassing for Van de Kamp, who has been schmoozing party activists for years and hoping for their official stamp of approval to restore momentum to his underdog campaign.
A Times survey of Democratic voters from March 23-28 found Feinstein, the former San Francisco mayor, to be leading Van de Kamp by 11 percentage points--35% to 24%, with a substantial 41% still undecided. By contrast, Times interviews for the last month with convention delegates found them to be preferring Van de Kamp for the nomination, by 44% to 32%, with 22% undecided and 2% favoring "someone else."
The Times Poll, directed by I.A. Lewis, conducted telephone interviews starting March 9 and ending Wednesday night with 2,282 delegates, roughly 95% of those planning to attend the convention. The three-day meeting begins today in the Los Angeles Convention Center.
These delegates tend to be the workaholics of politics, the weekend volunteers who live and breathe election campaigns. Many also donate their own money to favorite political causes and tap friends and special interests for more funds. A few are among the political elite, the top elected officeholders.
Taken as a whole, they are out of step with rank-and-file voters on many issues, such as capital punishment. Among the delegates, capital punishment is opposed by a 3-2 margin. But among Democratic voters, it is supported 3 to 1, the recent poll found.
In some cases, the differences are only a matter of degree, such as on abortion. By a lopsided 8 to 1, the delegates say that all things considered they find themselves "more in favor of abortion (than) opposed." The Democratic voters also feel this way, but by 2 to 1.
Among the delegates, 70% call themselves liberals. Among Democratic voters, just 42% say they are liberals. And within the electorate as a whole, liberals total only 28%.
This is the first time in modern history that the California Democratic Party has been allowed by law to endorse candidates in a primary election. Previously, the party purposely was kept weak, a throwback to turn-of-the-century "reforms."
An endorsement presumably would generate grass-roots volunteer help for the winner, but the main advantage would be "bragging rights"--the opportunity to stamp one's candidacy with the official party label. For Van de Kamp, it also would gain him new credibility and provide a much-needed victory--any sort of victory--over the front-runner, Feinstein.
By rights, these delegates should be Van de Kamp's for the asking. He has labored in Democratic politics for years--attending conventions large and small--while Feinstein has all but ignored the party, except for the national convention that her city hosted in 1984.
But Van de Kamp in the last year has angered some influential party people--mainly the legislative leaders--by characterizing Sacramento as an unethical "swamp" and proposing to limit lawmakers to 12 years in office and statewide officials to two four-year terms. The delegates are about evenly divided on this term-limit proposal, the interviews showed, with Van de Kamp's supporters favoring the idea and Feinstein's slightly opposed.
Advisers for both Van de Kamp and Feinstein insist that their candidates have not waged all-out campaigns for the convention endorsement, pointing out that such an effort would have cost more than $100,000--money better spent on television commercials.
The endorsement vote will be taken at the convention wrap-up on Sunday. To gain an endorsement, a candidate would have to receive 60% of the votes cast. Delegates also can vote to endorse nobody, a sentiment expressed by nearly one-third of those interviewed by The Times. These delegates said the convention should not be in the business of endorsing at all.
Interestingly, although only 32% of the delegates said they "personally prefer" Feinstein, a larger number--39%--said she would be a stronger candidate than Van de Kamp in their local area.
And, by nearly 4 to 1, delegates described Feinstein as the "more dynamic" of the two candidates.
Van de Kamp is a big favorite of liberals. Feinstein is preferred slightly by moderates and conservatives. Delegates from Los Angeles County, where Van de Kamp served as district attorney, support the attorney general by more than 2 to 1. But he also is backed 4 to 3 by delegates from Feinstein's home base, the Bay Area.
If this convention follows the pattern of most Democratic Party meetings, there will be a lot of soul-searching about what the party can do to regain voter confidence and recapture the top elective offices of governor and president. California Democrats have lost four of the last six gubernatorial elections, and no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state for a quarter century.
When the delegates were asked what they considered "the single most important thing the California Democratic Party ought to do to win more elections," the most frequently heard reply was "get out the vote" on Election Day. Next came party unity and adoption of a platform.
Only 1% specifically mentioned developing solutions to crime and drugs, which 66% of the voters in the recent Times survey tagged as "the most important problem facing California today."
Delegates gave high marks to their state party chairman, former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., approving of his job performance by 77% to 15%.
They also gave a moderate vote of confidence to veteran U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, who has been rocked politically by the Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal. Asked for their impressions of the senator, the replies were favorable 56%, unfavorable 41%. By contrast, a Times survey in February found Democratic voters divided about equally between favorable and unfavorable impressions of Cranston.
DEMOCRATIC DELEGATES VS. VOTERS
Here is a comparison of delegates to the California Democratic Party convention and Democratic voters in general. The Times poll of the Democratic activists found them to be generally more liberal than rank-and-file voters in their party.
Democratic Democratic Delegates Voters Personal choice for governor Dianne Feinstein 32% 35% John Van de Kamp 44% 24% Someone else 2% 0% No opinion 22% 41% Abortion Favor 80% 60% Oppose 10% 28% No opinion 10% 12% Death Penalty Favor 38% 71% Oppose 56% 24% No opinion 6% 5% Ideology Liberal 70% 42% Middle-of-the-road 20% 33% Conservative 7% 13% Don't know 3% 12% Union Member Member 30% 24% Non-member 70% 76% Income Less than $20,000 6% 22% $20,000 to $40,000 22% 34% More than $40,000 66% 39% Don't know 6% 5%
Source: L.A. Times Poll