Republican Meg Whitman's unprecedented spending spree in the race for governor has rocketed her into a narrow lead against Democrat Jerry Brown, while incumbent U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) is holding her own as a trio of little-known GOP candidates vies to challenge her, a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll has found.
Whitman, who gave her campaign a record-breaking $39 million to finance a blistering pace of recent television advertising, carried 44% of voters to Brown's 41%. The campaign by Brown, the former governor and current attorney general, has been the antithesis of Whitman's, operating under the radar except for a brief burst of publicity in early March when he announced his intention to run.
In her first bid for elective office, Whitman was easily outdistancing her fellow Republican, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, with a 40-point lead in the poll as they move toward the June primary.
In the Republican Senate contest, former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell held a slim lead over one-time Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, 29% to 25%. Coming in a distant third was Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, at 9%.
At this early stage of the campaign, Boxer has a comfortable cushion over a generic Republican, 48% to 34%, as she seeks her fourth term. Although somewhat diminished in popularity, Boxer maintains a positive impression among California voters, the poll found.
The survey indicated broad dissatisfaction with the direction of California and the nation, but pessimism was far more pronounced when it came to the state, a reflection of the bleak fiscal news and high unemployment rate that have dominated for months.
"Jobs, jobs, jobs -- I don't care who it is, get me jobs," said Donald Sutton, who sells real estate in southern Los Angeles and northern Orange counties and who has tentatively sided with Whitman.
"I'm not discounting the fact that Jerry Brown has dedicated his life to California and needs to be honored for that," Sutton, a nonpartisan voter, said in a follow-up interview. "I prefer Meg Whitman because she has corporate experience and expertise to create jobs."
Brown was being propelled by party loyalty -- Democrats far outnumber Republicans in California -- and lingering goodwill from his eight years as governor, ending in 1983. His positive ratings increased along with the age of the voter, from a 24% favorable impression among those 18 to 29 years old to 48% among those 45 and older.
"I'm a Democrat and I'm going to be voting for a Democrat. It's as simple as that," said Marion Elliott, 63, an architect from San Francisco.
The state's persistent troubles appeared to be taking a heavier toll on state figures and institutions. In the four months since the last Times/ USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll was taken, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's job approval ratings have fallen 8 points, to a record low 25%. During the same time, Boxer's approval dipped only three points, to 40%, and fellow Sen. Dianne Feinstein's by two points, to 46% -- drops that were statistically insignificant.
The Legislature was the least popular entity, with only 18% of those polled voicing approval, about the same as last fall.
President Obama remains the most popular political figure: His job approval rating stood at 58%, only two points lower than in November. Thirty-four percent registered disapproval.
The poll was conducted for The Times and the USC college by two polling agencies, the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. The margin of error for the survey, which included 1,515 registered voters, was plus or minus 2.6 points for the overall sample and slightly larger for smaller breakdowns. Questioning took place March 23 through 30.
The survey demonstrated how thoroughly Whitman, the billionaire former head of EBay, has dominated the California elections thus far.
Two-thirds of California voters said they had seen a political ad this year, and the overwhelming majority had seen one by Whitman, who has divided her advertising stream between generalized feel-good commercials for herself and mocking slams at Poizner.
Six in 10 Californians said they could identify Whitman, a leap from her largely unknown status outside the business world last year. Poizner, whose ad buy has been dwarfed by Whitman's, was known by fewer than half of voters. And all three GOP candidates for Senate were known by fewer than four in 10 voters.
The ads clearly have benefited Whitman. Seventy-two percent of those who had seen one of her commercials backed her over Poizner, compared with 38% among those who had not seen ads.
Similarly, 53% of those who have seen her ads backed Whitman over Brown in a general election matchup; 33% backed her among those who said they had not seen political ads.
Whitman's lead over Poizner was so sweeping that she carried all voter groups.
In a projected Brown-Poizner general election, the Democrat carried three in 10 Republicans and conservatives, along with six in 10 moderates. Overall, Brown led Poizner 53% to 22%.
But the likely contest between Whitman and Brown showed signs of becoming a brawl.
Democrats have salivated at the chance to take back the governor's office. At least at this point in the race, the survey showed, it will be anything but easy.
Whitman and Brown split male voters in the poll and Whitman won among women, usually a Democratic voter group. Coastal voters -- necessary for a Democratic victory -- went to Brown by only the barest of margins.
Nonpartisan voters, the most sought-after because their allegiance usually dictates success, were divided as well -- in effect a victory for Whitman, since they have swung Democratic in recent elections. (Nonpartisan voters, who are registered as "decline to state," can cast ballots in either the Democratic or Republican primaries in June.)
Adding to Whitman's narrow overall margin was some slippage among Democrats; nearly three in 10 crossed the aisle to side with Whitman, while only two in 10 Republicans went to Brown.
"Whitman has been able to carve an identity outside of what people perceive the typical Republican candidate to be," said Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster who helped prepare the survey.
The importance of nonpartisan voters was illustrated in the Senate race, as Boxer's hold on them accounted for much of her standing. When matched against a generic Republican, the Democrat won 50% of nonpartisan voters, to 26% for the Republican.
"She seems in a better position than I would have thought," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who co-directed the poll.
Boxer enjoyed strong support among women, the hallmark of her three earlier statewide victories, and among coastal voters, liberals and moderates.
Boxer's job approval rating of 40% to 38% is low for most incumbents. But she has always labored under that standing: Her rating was only slightly higher, at 45%, at this point in her 1998 reelection campaign, which she eventually won by 10 points.
None of the Republican candidates has managed to enchant primary voters in the manner that Whitman has in the governor's race.
Fiorina and Campbell were closely matched. He carried Republicans 28% to 24% and nonpartisan voters 31% to 26%. He won among both men and women, the latter a particular target of Fiorina.
Even conservatives were split, with Fiorina at 30% and Campbell at 28% -- a disappointment to Fiorina, who has criticized Campbell's moderate-to-liberal social positions.
The poll demonstrated anew that, of all the forces affecting California campaigns, television remains primary.
As Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, put it in regard to Whitman's television-rich campaign, "The story is the money."
"You can't buy the governor's office," he added. "But you can buy a seat at the table."