Dollars and angst motivate voters

It is not surprising but it is confirmed: Money and frustration are driving California’s elections this year.

A Field Poll released last week demonstrated the dramatic edge that Republican Meg Whitman has given her campaign for governor by spending millions on a prodigious number of television ads: She was pummeling her Republican primary opponent, Steve Poizner, and was newly in a statistical tie with presumptive Democratic nominee Jerry Brown.

The same poll showed voters giving the back of their hand to Democrat Barbara Boxer, the top-ranked incumbent on the ballot this year, mostly because she is the top-ranked incumbent on the ballot this year.

For Democrats, the survey made clear that they may spend much of the next several months uttering the ancient political truism: The only poll that counts is the one on election day.

Normally, with the exception of races that include a bodybuilder-turned-actor, it is Republicans who are staking their hopes on a turnaround. And usually without good reason. Absent Arnold Schwarzenegger, it has been 16 years since a Republican was elected governor, and 22 years since one was elected to the Senate.

“It’s going to be a weird environment,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.

But so far, at least, the dynamics are simple.

In the race for governor, former EBay chief Whitman began airing radio ads last fall and turned to television, the biggest megaphone in any California race, in the first week of February. Most of her ads have been positive spots, emphasizing without specifics her desire to cut state spending, increase jobs and improve education. Recently, she began lofting short ads accusing Insurance Commissioner Poizner of being untrustworthy.

Poizner only started airing television ads on March 2, a week before the poll began surveying voters, and has aired far fewer of them. Brown has yet to air commercials or even to campaign much.

The effect of Whitman’s spending is clear in a comparison of two Field polls, one taken in January before her move to TV and one released last week.

Between January and March, Californians of all political stripes began looking more favorably at her. The percentage of Republicans who said they had a favorable impression rose 22 points over the two months, to 56%. Positive views by nonpartisan voters -- the group whose allegiance determines the winner -- rose by almost the same amount, 19 points. Even among Democrats, 24% had a favorable view of Whitman, eight points higher than in January.

Brown, by contrast, lost ground among nonpartisan voters. But Poizner, the target of the newer Whitman ads, suffered definitively. Among nonpartisan voters his unfavorable rating jumped 17 points. Among Republicans it leaped 15 points. His favorable ratings were essentially unchanged, meaning that almost all of those who moved from undecided to having a view of him decided they disliked him.

Was it the money?

“It has to be,” said DiCamillo of the Field Poll. Confirming that view, he said, was that Whitman’s gain came in demographic groups traditionally less interested in politics, particularly residents of Southern California and nonpartisan voters.

“It may be wide, but it’s not too deep,” he said of her support. “The longer she gets to reinforce those images, the deeper it gets.”

The Senate race displayed a different dynamic. Far from seeing an influx of money, the campaign has been marked by the absence of spending. None of the three major Republican candidates is airing ads -- which made Barbara Boxer’s fall even more notable.

From January to March, voters’ views of Boxer essentially flipped. Almost half looked favorably on her in January, with 39% in opposition; by March only 38% had a favorable opinion, and almost half were in opposition. She lost ground among Republicans and Democrats. Among nonpartisan voters -- 20% of the electorate -- dislike doubled, to 54%.

It was the kind of shift that happens under a blizzard of negative ads. But there were none; there has been little public campaign at all. Indeed, views on the three Republicans remained largely unchanged over the same span.

DiCamillo said Boxer’s ratings fell under the heavy weight of voter frustration with Washington. Even President Obama’s marks slipped, although his ratings remained far higher than Boxer’s.

“He’s the only survivor in this train wreck,” DiCamillo said. “The other elected officials on the ballot are talking a hit, and Boxer is right there.”

The results came as no surprise to Boxer’s campaign, which, like Brown’s, is in the uncomfortable position of having to sit on its collective hands while the numbers fall. Several of the Republican candidates are rich enough to finance their own efforts, but neither Democrat is. What money they have is better spent next fall.

“Voters are very frustrated about the pace of economic recovery, and I think that is the main issue driving this,” said Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer’s campaign manager.

Neither race is set in stone. Poizner has pledged to spend millions in a last-two-months blitz which, if tradition follows, will damage Whitman. That could benefit him, if it propels him to the nomination, or Brown, if Whitman wins anyway.

In the Senate contest, Boxer will have a chance to make up ground when a GOP nominee is picked and the three-term incumbent has a direct comparison. If voters become more confident about the economy, that too could benefit Boxer and other incumbents.

“An election is a choice, not a referendum,” Kapolczynski said.

“At this moment in time, the polls reflect anger and frustration at what’s happening or not happening in Washington. In November, there will be a very different decision.”


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