The shift comes after a tumultuous month for the Republican candidate that has led some voters to question her veracity and her handling of accusations by an illegal immigrant housekeeper.
Brown, the Democratic attorney general and former governor, led Whitman 52% to 39% among likely voters, the poll found. His advantage has more than doubled since a Times/USC poll in September.
The abrupt movement in the race for governor came as Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer held onto her 8-point margin over Republican Carly Fiorina in the U.S. Senate contest. Boxer's 50% to 42% lead was statistically unchanged from September's 51% to 43% edge.
For both Democrats, the month between the two polls found the party's strongest supporters rallying to the candidates' sides: liberals, women and Latinos either solidified or expanded their backing for Brown and Boxer. Nonpartisan voters, whom Republicans had counted on to overcome the Democratic advantage in voter registration, moved away from the two Republican candidates, and moderate voters also tilted toward the Democrats.
Paula Bennett, a schoolteacher in the Sacramento-area town of Acampo, said she was drawn to Brown in part by the blizzard of cash Whitman has thrown at the race.
"I like the little guy; he didn't have the money behind him like she did," she said in a follow-up interview, adding that she sided with Brown for the same reason that she favors a mom-and-pop establishment over a retail behemoth.
"We don't shop at Walmart. We shop at the local store. He just seemed like more of a down-home candidate."
Although she is Republican, Bennett is also siding with Boxer. She said she was offended by both Whitman's and Fiorina's infusions of personal cash into their races.
"That message that they're sending to people is a very bad choice," she said. "We're looking to people to act their values rather than throw money at causes. People are holding their money really closely and those candidates are really splurging."
Most of the nation has seen pronounced enthusiasm by Republican voters as the midterm elections approach. In California, however, Democrats have gained strength and GOP motivation has ebbed slightly in the last month, the poll showed. The current standings represent a reassertion of a more typical profile for the state after an election year convulsed by a foundering economy, widespread discontent about the future and record-breaking spending by Whitman, who has dropped more than $141 million of her own money into her campaign.
The poll was conducted for The Los Angeles Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences from Oct. 13 to 20 by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. It included a random sample of 1,501 California voters, including 922 likely voters. Results for likely voters have a margin of sampling error of 3.2 points in either direction, with a larger margin for subgroups.
The survey was taken as the two gubernatorial candidates pummeled each other over the state's airwaves and flooded telephone lines and mailboxes with entreaties for the election — now nine days away. And it came at the close of a particularly difficult period in the race for Whitman.
A turning point appears to have been the Sept. 29 announcement by her former housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, that she had been employed by the former EBay chief for nine years, a period during which she said Whitman became aware of her illegal status. Whitman countered that she had not known of Diaz Santillan's status until shortly before firing her in 2009, and she released copies of falsified documents presented to her by Diaz Santillan.
Diaz Santillan, accompanied by attorney Gloria Allred in a series of sob-wracked news conferences, displayed a copy of a 2003 government document sent to Whitman and her husband that could have alerted them that their employee was using a false Social Security number.
The subsequent days of controversy upended Whitman's carefully nuanced position on illegal immigration and whipsawed her between voters who thought she was too easy on Diaz Santillan and those who thought the housekeeper deserved better than banishment. Whitman slipped among both groups in the new poll.
Among likely Latino voters, support for Brown grew from a 20-point lead in September to a 34-point advantage in the new survey. His lead among women voters expanded from 9 points to 21 points. Among nonpartisan voters, who in California register as "decline to state" and tend to recoil from tough stances against illegal immigrants, Brown's lead over Whitman grew from 6 points to 37 points.
At the other end of the ideological scale, Whitman's standing among conservatives ebbed slightly, from 77% to 70%. She continued to outdistance Brown among those voters, although his support grew slightly from 16% to 21%.
Overall, by 52% to 41%, voters said that Whitman had not handled the housekeeper controversy well. The same key voter groups — women, independents and Latinos — offered the harshest verdicts. When asked how Brown had handled the matter, voters were more divided, with 37% saying he did well and 43% saying he did not. Among independent voters, a plurality approved of Brown's actions.
The damage to Whitman's candidacy over the last month could be seen in a host of poll findings. The percentage of voters with an unfavorable view of her rose slightly from 47% to 52%, making her the only major candidate with a majority negative impression. Her favorable rating stayed at 37%.
Her standing on a number of questions that plumbed voter views of the candidates — their plans, energy, decisiveness and understanding of voters — slipped narrowly.
The most striking finding involved truthfulness, and Whitman appeared to be suffering from the housekeeper situation as well as from a barrage of attacks by Brown about her honesty and news reports challenging the accuracy of her ads.
Asked which of the candidates was better at telling the truth, 44% chose Brown while just 24% chose Whitman. Twenty-seven percent cast Brown as "much" better at the truth than Whitman, while only 12% described Whitman that way. Again the judgments were most pronounced among women, Latinos and independents.
While the governor's race was changing dramatically, the contest for U.S. Senate was moving incrementally. Since the September poll, Fiorina has mounted an aggressive stand of advertising that has blunted Boxer's efforts to break away.
"People are judging these races in two very different fashions," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint. "It's become a referendum on Whitman and a referendum on Boxer."
Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, agreed: "These two races are moving with their own dynamics," he said.
Half of voters had an unfavorable view of Boxer, a three-term senator; 44% had a favorable view of her. Compared with September, more voters had some impression of Fiorina, but her rating was also negative, at 43% unfavorable and 36% favorable. Brown was the only one of the four candidates for top offices who had a net positive rating, with 48% favorable to 44% unfavorable — an uptick from last month.
Joyce Reed of Indio said she was voting for Fiorina because "she's running against someone I've wanted to get out of there for so long."
"It's an attitude, and her beliefs," said Reed, a Republican, when asked what she disliked about Boxer. "What she believes in are not my beliefs."
Still, Boxer benefitted from gains over the past month among liberals, moderates and independents.
Fiorina lost ground among those groups, but rose slightly among Latinos and men. Her gains among Latinos were minimal considering Boxer's 60% to 28% lead among those voters.
As election day grew closer, the candidates and their campaigns were wrestling over wobbling voters and vying for the shrinking pool of undecided voters. Among them was Robert Trabucco of San Diego, who expects his decision to come down to the wire.
He was hoping, he said, to read a bit more about the candidates. He did not consider the torrent of advertising now blaring into California's living rooms to be at all helpful.
"I change the channel," he said.