Obama up on McCain in California

Times Staff Writer

Less than four months after losing the California primary, Democrat Barack Obama leads Republican John McCain in projected November general election matchups, a new Los Angeles Times/KTLA Poll has found.

Obama, the Illinois senator who has inched close to his party’s nomination, would defeat McCain by seven points if the election were held today. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose fortunes have faltered since her Feb. 5 drubbing of Obama in California, would eke out only a three-point victory, the poll found.

The poll appeared to illustrate that Democrats, at least in California, are gravitating toward the candidate who is broadly expected to eventually seize the party’s mantle. Obama now runs better against the Arizona senator than does Clinton among many of the groups that powered her victory in the state, among them Latinos, Catholics and those without college degrees.

Although exit polls in recent primaries elsewhere have shown Clinton supporters reluctant to embrace Obama as the nominee, there was little of that sentiment evident in the California poll. But the survey could not measure whether time had eased partisan passions or whether Californians were predisposed to embrace either Democrat.

Overall, Obama led McCain 47% to 40% among registered voters, while Clinton led McCain 43% to 40%.


McCain has insisted that he will compete to win California in the fall. But California has gone to the Democrat in each of the last four presidential elections. Most of the state’s political professionals consider it to be reliably Democratic -- and too expensive to prompt a full-throated effort by a Republican candidate who could amass electoral votes more cheaply elsewhere.

McCain’s standing against Obama -- coming after months of good news for the Republican and a brutal and continuing Democratic primary battle -- offered the presumptive GOP nominee little solace. One bright spot was support among Latinos. McCain won 38% of Latinos against Obama and 41% against Clinton; both figures are substantially higher than the proportion won by George W. Bush in his two presidential campaigns.

But other poll findings suggest problems for McCain. The senator has made joint appearances with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and has touted the affinity between the two. But the governor’s job approval rating has slumped dramatically, from 60% favorable among voters in January to 43% favorable now. About 42% of Californians disapproved of how Schwarzenegger has handled his job.

The rating was the lowest for Schwarzenegger since October 2005, shortly before voters soundly rejected ballot measures he pressed for in a special election.

The poll also found Californians more pessimistic about the state’s direction than at any time since the 2003 recall that swept Schwarzenegger into office. Fewer than one in five voters felt the state was headed in the right direction, with two-thirds convinced it was on the wrong track. That was the lowest rating since August 2003, on the eve of the recall campaign, when a mere 14% of voters were optimistic.

Women were among the most pessimistic, with 16% judging the state headed in the right direction. Not coincidentally, they viewed the governor far less favorably than Californians overall, with only 35% approving of how he has governed.

Republicans, too, were negative, with 73% saying the state was on the wrong track and 52% approving of Schwarzenegger’s tenure. The governor has clashed repeatedly with fellow Republicans on a range of policy issues.

The poll, under the direction of Susan Pinkus, interviewed 834 Californians, including 705 registered voters, on Tuesday and Wednesday. The margin of error is 3 percentage points in either direction overall and 4 points for registered voters. Margins were larger for demographic subgroups.

Signs that Democratic loyalty had survived the primary surfaced repeatedly in the survey. To take one measure, Clinton won 76% of Democrats against McCain; Obama won 75%, a statistically insignificant difference. In any case, Obama more than made up for it by winning more independents and Republicans than Clinton would.

Gregory Sanders, a Democrat from West Hollywood, said he “avidly” supported Clinton in the primary but would now back Obama.

“I accept that she lost the nomination,” he said in a follow-up interview, adding that he still has “reservations” about Obama because of the controversial comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

“He strikes me as naive, and the Rev. Wright scandal demonstrates that,” Sanders said. “Obama knew that was a problem and he didn’t do anything about it.”

But Lena Neal, a Democrat from Perris, described herself as a former Clinton supporter who had turned to Obama as the primary season progressed. “He’s just a down-to-earth person, just a reachable person,” she said.

Clinton demonstrated more strength than Obama among only a few demographic groups, including white women and older women. But her small advantage among those groups tends to undercut her argument that she is the Democrat best able to deliver big states in November -- at least where California is concerned.

Matched against McCain, Obama won a larger percentage than Clinton of self-described liberals, moderates and conservatives. Both he and Clinton won 86% of liberal Democrats and about two-thirds of moderate Democrats.

Democratic women, Clinton’s bulwark throughout the primaries and a source of emotional sustenance now, in the closing days of the race, showed no sign of turning against Obama. About 74% of them sided with Clinton against McCain; 75% sided with Obama against McCain.

Obama won larger percentages against McCain than did Clinton among white voters; he lost them to McCain by four points, while Clinton lost by eight. Surprisingly, however, Obama made up ground among Latinos, who overwhelmingly backed Clinton in the primary. A little more than half of Latinos sided with Obama over McCain, while just under half sided with Clinton over McCain.

McCain has argued that he can run strongly among Latinos, in part because he has long favored comprehensive immigration reform that would include a strategy to legalize immigrants, much to the disdain of many in his party. In the survey, he lost Latinos to Clinton by six points and to Obama by 14 points.

Becky Espinoza of Kerman, a Republican, said she would vote for McCain because “he’s got more experience.”

“The only thing I hesitate on is his age,” she said.

Key to Obama’s strength in California, at this point, is the group that was largely ignored in the run-up to the primary: men. Overall, Obama held a 10-point advantage over McCain among men, while Clinton split men with McCain. White men gave McCain a three-point advantage over Obama and a 15-point edge over Clinton. Nonwhite men sided with the Democrats in landslide proportions.

With Republicans now only about one-third of the California electorate, GOP candidates must reach deeply into the ranks of moderates if they are to win statewide. There, McCain was faltering. He was losing moderates to Clinton by 24 points and to Obama by 30 points.

He was also having a difficult time holding on to his own party members. One in five Republicans surveyed by the poll sided with Obama in their matchup. McCain won only 70% of his party colleagues, not enough to offset losing independents and 75% of Democrats to Obama.

The party loyalty numbers were a potential sign of trouble for both McCain and Obama, though at this point they are canceling each other out. Typically, candidates corral nine out of 10 of their party’s voters. A substantial drop in Republican support for McCain would put the state out of reach for him, and a drop in Democratic support for Obama could make California more competitive.