Poll Analysis: Boxer Pulls Slightly Ahead of Fong Among Likely Voters

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With just under two weeks until election day, Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer has pulled ahead of her Republican challenger Matt Fong in the race for U.S. Senate. On the heels of a strong advertising campaign, Boxer garners 49% of the vote to Fong's 44% among voters most likely to turn out to vote on November 3rd, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll conducted October 17-21.
      Boxer's five point lead over Fong among likely voters reflects a shift in support from one month ago, when Fong had a modest lead over Boxer among those most likely to cast ballots: 48% to 43%. However, while these survey findings suggest that Boxer may be pulling away from Fong in the final weeks of the campaign, the race is far from over. Boxer's five point lead is a weak cushion of support and most likely reflects Fong's failure to respond to Boxer's blitz of advertising in the past few weeks. An effective advertising campaign from Fong could reverse the tide again in the campaign's final days.

      The Vote
      Both candidates perform well among their base voters. Boxer receives 85% of the likely Democratic vote and Fong receives 80% of the likely Republican vote. Boxer also collects support from 82% of liberals, while Fong draws support from 79% of conservatives most likely to vote. However, Boxer runs stronger among the important swing voter group of moderates, pulling in 62% of the vote from this group of likely voters to Fong's 26%. Furthermore, 28% of non-conservative Republicans defect to Boxer, while just 13% of non-liberal Democrats said they will support Fong. Boxer also fares better than Fong among voter groups historically more likely to turn out on election day, including more educated and older voters.
      As in previous elections, Boxer continues to draw support from higher proportions of women than men. While she has an 11 point deficit among men (52% for Fong and 41% for Boxer), she leads among women by 19 points (56% to 37%).
      Although the two U.S. Senate candidates are essentially tied among likely white voters, Boxer leads handily among African Americans (receiving support from approximately 8 out of 10) and Latinos (receiving support from approximately 6 out of 10). She also runs stronger than Fong in the traditionally Democratic regions of Los Angeles County (54%) and the Bay Area (66%) and is ahead of Fong in the rest of Northern California (62%) as well. Fong is ahead in the more conservative Central Valley (56%) and Southern California area outside of L.A. County (55%).
      When likely voters were asked why they support the candidate of their choice, the most mentioned reason for voting for Fong is a dislike of Boxer, with 29% giving this response (respondents were allowed to give two reasons for their support). Another 26% said they are voting for Fong because they like his stands on the issues in general, 18% support him because he is a Republican and 12% because they simply believe he is the best candidate. For Boxer, one-quarter support her based on her stand on the issues in general, 20% because she is a Democrat, 12% because they feel she is the best candidate, 14% because they think she is best qualified, 10% because of her pro-choice position and nine percent because she is a woman. Just five percent are voting for Boxer simply because they do not like Fong.

      Issue Positions of the Candidates
      Boxer's current lead demonstrates the importance of television advertising in California elections. Fong allowed Boxer to run a series of commercials unchecked for nearly two weeks that framed the Republican as out of step with Californians on the issues of gun control, abortion, and HMO reform. Boxer's nearly 2 to 1 advantage in advertising dollars allowed the Democrat to set the agenda for the debate and frame the issues in a light that best supported her candidacy. While the election was largely seen as a referendum on Boxer, Fong's lack of response to Boxer's advertising has moved the emphasis away from Boxer specifically and on to issues where Boxer's views better reflect those of the electorate than do the views of Fong.
      The Los Angeles Times poll shows that voters believe Boxer's views on abortion and gun control more closely reflect their own. Boxer holds a strong pro-choice view while Fong would place restrictions on a woman having an abortion after the first three months of her pregnancy. Fifty-five percent of likely voters--regardless of gender--believe Boxer's position is closer to their own while 40% more closely agree with Fong. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats and 60% of independents prefer Boxer's pro-choice position.However, even 28% of Republicans (regardless of gender), including 50% of non-conservative Republicans, feel this way as well. Central Valley voters, voters in Southern California outside of Los Angeles County, more affluent voters, voters under the age of 45, and non-conservative Republicans are divided over which candidate best represents their opinion on abortion.
      Fong's stance on abortion may also hurt him more than Boxer's stance at the ballot box.One-quarter of likely voters said they would be less likely to vote for Boxer after hearing her position on abortion and one-third said they would be less likely to vote for Fong after hearing his view.
      Boxer also favors widening the ban on assault weapons and banning Saturday Night Specials. Fong supports the existing ban on assault weapons but opposes extending new bans or banning Saturday Night Specials. Sixty percent of likely voters believe Boxer's position is closer to their own while just 33% believe Fong's stance best represents their view on this issue. More voters believe Boxer's gun control position best reflects their own, regardless of age, income, educational attainment, gender or ethnicity. Nearly nine out of ten Democrats and six out of 10 independents believe Boxer's position on gun issues best reflects their own. However, a high 31% of Republicans also feel this way as well, including 40% of Republican women and 45% of non-conservative Republicans.Voters in the Central Valley and Southern California outside of Los Angeles County are divided between the two candidates on this issue, while voters in other regions of the state overwhelmingly believe Boxer's gun control position comes closer to their own.
      Most likely an outgrowth of these issues and the HMO reform message promoted by Boxer (but not tested in this survey), slightly more likely voters believe Boxer's better understands people like themselves--47% to 40%. Among registered voters, the gap is wider, with 49% believing Boxer best understands them and 34% giving this distinction to Fong. Among likely voters, this perception is one that breaks along party lines, with independents divided in their view. However, moderates and women are again more likely to believe Boxer best understands them and one-third of non-conservative Republicans feel this way as well.

      Candidate Ratings
      Boxer currently enjoys a positive job approval rating from 51% of likely voters and a negative rating from 37%. This rating reflects a modest increase from one month ago when 47% of likely voters rated her positively and 37% negatively.As with other findings in this survey, Boxer's job performance rating rises and fall with party ties.Seventy-nine percent of likely Democratic voters approve of the job she is doing and just 11% disapprove. However, 65% of likely Republican voters disapprove and just 21% approve of Boxer's handling of her job as U.S. Senator. Independents are more evenly divided, with 45% approving and 39% disapproving. Yet, while liberals largely approve of Boxer and conservatives largely disapprove, moderates rate Boxer approvingly, 62% to 26%. Boxer's unbalanced support among men and women is also evident in her job approval rating, with 58% of women approving of her performance and 30% disapproving compared to 43% of men approving and 45% disapproving.
      Boxer receives an overall favorable rating from 52% of likely voters and an unfavorable review from 42% (unchanged from one month ago). Her overall impression is also polarized by party, ideology, and gender.
      Fong, who was unfamiliar to 34% of likely voters one month ago, is now unknown to just 14%. However, as his familiarity has risen, so have his negative evaluations. While 52% of likely voters rate Fong favorably (virtually unchanged from one month ago), 31% now rate him unfavorably compared to the 15% who felt this way in the September Los Angeles Times poll. This finding suggests that Boxer's negative advertising is resonating with voters as they become more aware of Fong. Fong's favorable ratings are stronger with likely voters in his base voter groups of Republicans (79% to 11% favorable), conservatives (78% to 9%), Central Valley voters (62% to 19%) and Southern California voters outside of Los Angeles County (61% to 22%). He also fares better with more affluent voters and white voters. However, moderates are more divided in their view of the Republican challenger.

      How the Poll Was Conducted
      The Times Poll contacted 1,449 California registered voters, including 883 voters deemed most likely to vote, by telephone October 17-21. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education, region and registration. The margin of sampling error for registered voters is plus or minus three percentage points and for likely voters, it is four points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Although Asians were interviewed and included in the sample, there were not enough of this group to break out separately.