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Kerry Leads Edwards Handily in California

Times Staff Writer

A week before California’s Democratic presidential primary, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry leads North Carolina Sen. John Edwards by a lopsided 56% to 24% among the state’s likely voters in the race, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

The survey also found that, while many Californians are still unaware of them, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s two budget measures on the March 2 ballot are winning a majority, thanks partly to his aggressive campaign for voter approval.

One of them, Proposition 57, which would authorize up to $15 billion in bonds to help balance the state budget, has the support of 51% of voters with 34% opposed -- once the measure was explained to them. The other, Proposition 58, which would require the Legislature to pass a balanced budget, has a broader 58%-to-23% lead.

But two other ballot measures were in trouble, the poll found. Proposition 55, a $12-billion school bond, is ahead narrowly -- 49% to 41%. Proposition 56 -- a proposal to lower the Legislature’s vote threshold for passing a budget, in effect abolishing the Republican minority’s power to block tax hikes -- is losing 39% to 46%. On all of the propositions, a substantial chunk of the electorate was still undecided even after being told about the measures.

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Beyond next week’s election, the survey found California to be decidedly unfriendly territory for President Bush in November. Just over half of California voters disapprove of his job performance. In potential matchups, Kerry and Edwards each finish well ahead of the Republican president -- in Kerry’s case by a solid 13 points.

Indeed, the depth of opposition to Bush among Democrats, who dominate California elections, is a key factor fueling Kerry’s strength in the primary, the poll found. Among likely Democratic primary voters, 56% say it was more important to choose a candidate who could drive Bush from office than one who agrees with them.

“He’s one of the worst presidents we’ve had in 150 years,” Democratic poll respondent Robert Drescher of Santa Clarita said in a follow-up interview.

The 44-year-old lawyer favors Kerry for the same reason he preferred Wesley Clark before the retired general dropped out of the race: He sees him as having the best shot at defeating Bush.

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Following the pattern set in other states, Kerry’s support in the primary cuts across a broad range of demographic groups. He wins majorities of men, women, liberals, moderates, Latinos, union members and senior citizens, among others.

Even primary voters who cite the economy or jobs as their No. 1 issue -- a group that has tilted toward Edwards in other states -- prefer Kerry to his main rival, 69% to 26%, the poll found.

Still, underscoring the volatility of the already tumultuous Democratic race, a full third of the voters who favor a candidate say they might abandon him and shift to another by election day.

Edwards supporter Ed Estin, 68, a retired Napa probation officer, said his choice was “not firm at all.” Estin said he is drawn by the Southern background and youthfulness of Edwards, who is 50. And he questions Kerry’s effectiveness after nearly 20 years in the Senate. But he said he was still “looking for more information.”

“I’m not totally supportive of Edwards; I’m just less supportive of Kerry,” Estin said.

California is one of 10 states holding contests March 2, when more than half of the 2,159 delegates needed to win the Democratic presidential nomination will be awarded in contests from coast to coast.

With more hard-fought races that day in New York, Ohio, Georgia and other states, California has received scant attention so far from the leading candidates, apart from quick visits to tap its vast network of campaign donors.

But California’s 370 delegates are the biggest prize of the nomination battle. Edwards’ surprisingly strong second-place finish last week in the Wisconsin primary set the stage for a competitive race, a rarity in modern California, but Kerry’s 32-point lead in the Times poll calls that into doubt.

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In Los Angeles on Thursday, Kerry, Edwards and two other candidates, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton, will square off at USC in a debate sponsored by The Times and CNN. The poll found Kucinich favored by 4% of likely primary voters, and Sharpton, 1%.

The survey, supervised by Times polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,521 registered California voters from Feb. 18 to 22, including 1,005 likely to vote in the March 2 election. Among them were 560 deemed likely to vote in the Democratic primary, which is open to independents. The margin of sampling error for registered voters and all likely voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For likely Democratic primary voters, it is 4 points.

The poll found many Californians still bewildered by the ballot measures. When asked flatly whether they support or disapprove of the propositions, about half said they didn’t know. Voters then were read the ballot summary. Even then, up to a fifth still said they did not know how they would vote.

Ballot measures require a majority vote to pass.

On the two Schwarzenegger measures, the poll suggests that the governor’s television ads have had a significant impact. In the absence of any substantial opposition campaign, he has pitched Propositions 57 and 58 as crucial steps in California’s recovery from its fiscal crisis. Neither measure will take effect unless both pass.

Initial independent polls last month found Proposition 57, the $15-billion debt proposal, in serious danger: Just a third of likely voters approved it. But the Times poll, taken after the ads began airing, found voters favoring it, 51% to 34%, once they were told its content, and passing Proposition 58, the balanced-budget measure, by an even wider margin, 58% to 23%.

Retired teacher Emogene VanNort, 73, a Palm Desert Republican, said she had seen Schwarzenegger’s commercials, and he persuaded her to vote yes on both. “One reason I’m steering that way is our new governor, Mr. Schwarzenegger, has been endorsing it and I’m certainly behind him,” she said.

In a reflection of Schwarzenegger’s popularity among fellow Republicans, GOP voters, normally strong opponents of bond measures, favor his debt proposal, 64% to 27%, but Democrats are divided, 41% for it and 40% against it. Schwarzenegger has assembled a broad bipartisan coalition for his campaign; California’s most popular Democrat, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, stars in his latest ad for the measures.

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Proposition 55, the proposed school bond, is ahead, 49% to 41%, but its shaky, just-shy-of-a-majority standing left its election day prospects unclear. The high-profile campaign against Proposition 56, the measure to lower the percentage needed for approval of the state budget, was apparently finding a receptive audience: Voters were rejecting it, with 39% in favor and 46% opposed.

While opinions on the ballot measures were uncertain, there was far more unanimity in the presidential contest -- bad news for either Democratic candidate Edwards or President Bush.

In the Democratic primary, Edwards faces an array of obstacles:

* Kerry’s voter base is strongest: While 29% of Kerry backers say they might change their minds, 42% of Edwards’ supporters are open to switching.

* Nearly three out of four likely primary voters say Kerry has the best chance of beating Bush. Half of Edwards’ own supporters view Kerry as the most likely to beat Bush.

* Among likely primary voters who cite the ability to beat Bush as the top factor in making a choice, 87% opt for Kerry. Of those who say the candidate’s stands on issues are most important, voters still favor Kerry over Edwards, 57% to 32%.

* After ability to beat Bush, the next most important thing to primary voters is experience, and 92% of voters who name that quality as the top priority favor Kerry over Edwards.

“John Edwards is OK. He’s just a little young for me right now,” said Fresno Democrat David Collins, 53, a county welfare supervisor. “He might be a good vice president, but I don’t think he’d be good for running the country.”

Perhaps most worrisome for Edwards: His opposition to free trade pacts, his showcase issue in the current round of primaries, does not seem to resonate in California as well as it might in Rust Belt states.

More than half of likely primary voters say that U.S. trade with other countries takes more jobs from California than it creates for the state. Yet those voters still prefer Kerry over Edwards, 52% to 28%.

One of them is Linda Leonhardt, 62, a Democrat who said corporations had “gone way overboard” in moving jobs to “Mexico and China and everywhere else to get the cheaper workforce and the cheaper prices.” But the retired college English teacher, who lives in Quincy near Lake Tahoe, said: “I want the strongest candidate that can beat Bush, and I don’t think Edwards can do it.”

When it comes to Bush’s tax cuts, nearly half of Democratic primary voters prefer a nominee who -- like Kerry and Edwards -- would push to repeal those that benefit the wealthy. And just 3% prefer to keep the tax cuts intact, a reflection of the limited reach, in California, of Bush’s emphasis on tax cuts as he campaigns for a second term.

More than four in 10 Democratic primary voters favor a total rollback of the Bush tax cuts.

As primary voters make up their minds, the outcome of the 17 earlier contests in other states -- Kerry won 15 of them -- is weighing heavily, the poll found. Nearly half of likely primary voters who have chosen a candidate said those earlier results played a role in their decision.

California primary voters also were pleased to see former front-runner Howard Dean bow out of the race last week: 82% said he was right to withdraw. “He’s a loudmouth,” said Drescher, who feared Dean would have lost to Bush in a landslide had he won the nomination. “He didn’t know how to be tactful.”

On Dean’s signature issue, the war in Iraq, California voters are split. Among all registered voters, 48% agreed with Bush’s decision to go to war and 49% disagreed. Less than half -- 48% -- say Bush acted in good faith on the intelligence he was given about Saddam Hussein while almost the same share -- 49% -- say he exaggerated the threat to bolster support for the war.

Kerry and Edwards each voted for the Senate resolution authorizing the president to go to war, putting them at odds with a full two-thirds of likely primary voters, who say they would prefer a nominee who opposed the war. Both, however, have faulted Bush’s handling of Iraq.

For Bush, the poll affirmed the steep climb he faces to overcome a stark Democratic advantage in California, a state he lost to Democratic rival Al Gore by 1.3 million votes in 2000, despite spending millions of dollars here while Gore invested time and cash elsewhere. For Democrats, victory in California is crucial to capturing the White House.

Kerry, the poll found, would beat Bush in a romp, 53% to 40% if the election were held today, and Edwards would defeat the president, 49% to 42%.

Bush’s job approval rating among all registered voters in California has sunk to 47%, his lowest showing since June 2001, with 51% now disapproving. Bush’s support remains strongest among Republicans, with nearly eight in 10 giving him a favorable rating. But independents were split -- 47% approve, with 49% disapproving -- and Democrats were solidly against Bush by 3 to 1.

In his reelection campaign, Bush has stressed defense and terrorism, subjects that appeal to Republicans such as Riverside County farmer Robert McGinty, 42. “He’s tough as hell, and he doesn’t back down,” said McGinty, citing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “If we would have had Gore, they would have run us over. You’ve got to be a strong-willed person for us not to get run over.”

A danger sign for Bush, however, is his weak support among moderate Republicans: Just over a third of them disapprove of his job performance. Since the late 1990s, defections of moderate Republicans have been a key factor in a string of GOP losses in statewide elections -- including Bush’s in 2000.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

State poll results

Democratic presidential race

Kerry: 56%

Edwards: 24%

Kucinich: 4%

Sharpton: 1%

Someone else: 1%

Don’t know: 14%

*

The governor’s propositions

*--* Proposition 57 58 Yes 51% 58% No 34% 23% Undecided 15% 19%

*--*

Among likely voters

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Ballot measures

Q: If the election were held today, how would you vote on...

*--* Propositions Yes No Undecided 55 (public education facilities bond) 49% 41% 10% 56 (pass budget with 55% of vote) 39% 46% 15% 57 (economic recovery act) 51% 34% 15% 58 (balanced budget act) 58% 23% 19%

*--*

Among likely voters

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

California primary election

Q: Those likely to vote in the Democratic primary election were asked: If the March 2 primary for president were held today, for whom would you vote?

Kerry: 56%

Edwards: 24%

Kucinich: 4%

Sharpton: 1%

Someone else: 1%

Don’t know: 14%

*

Q: Are you certain you’re going to vote for that candidate, or is it possible that you might end up voting for somebody else?

*--* All likely voters Kerry voters Edwards voters Certain 66% 70% 55% Someone else 33% 29% 42% Not sure 1% 1% 3%

*--*

*

Q: Which is more important to you in deciding which candidate for president you would vote for?

*--* All likely voters Kerry voters Edwards voters Can defeat George W. Bush 56% 61% 51% Agrees with you on major issues 40% 35% 47%

*--*

*

Q: What issue or problem matters most to you?+

*--* All likely voters Kerry voters Edwards voters Economy/jobs 48% 51% 45% Iraq war 28% 30% 26% Healthcare 18% 16% 18% Education 10% 8% 13%

*--*

+Accepted up to two replies. Top four responses shown.

*

Q: For whom would you vote in the Nov. 2 general election?

Registered voters

If Kerry is nominee:

Kerry: 53%

Bush: 40%

Don’t know: 7%

If Edwards is nominee:

Edwards: 49%

Bush: 42%

Someone else: 1%

Don’t know: 8%

*

Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president?

Approve: 47%

Disapprove: 51%

*

How the poll was conducted:

The Los Angeles Times Poll contacted 1,936 California residents, including 1,521 registered voters, by telephone Feb. 18-22. Among registered voters were 1,005 considered likely to vote, including 560 deemed likely to vote in the Democratic primary, which allows independents to participate. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers were contacted. The sample of all California adults was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for all adults is plus or minus 2 percentage points and among all registered and likely primary voters it is 3 points; for Democratic primary voters it is 4 points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.

Results shown are among likely Democratic primary election voters unless otherwise indicated. Numbers may not total 100% where some answer categories are not shown.

Times staff writer Julie Tamaki contributed to this report.


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