More than half of those surveyed in a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll say they approve of the job Brown is doing as governor — the highest rating since he retook the governor's office in 2011. Yet only 32% say they are inclined to vote for Brown if he seeks an unprecedented fourth term as California's chief executive next year.
Moreover, respondents give Brown little credit for what is widely considered as his signature achievement since returning to the governor's office in 2011 — erasing a $26 billion state deficit. Only 38% say they approve of the way Brown has handled the issue; 47% disapprove.
Half of respondents say California's economy is not getting better. They don't blame Brown — but voters who do see improvement give a better-functioning Legislature more credit for the turnaround than they give the governor.
Some of Brown's lower ratings may be due to his subdued governing style.
"Brown has made less effort to establish a public and media presence in California than any governor in almost a quarter century," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "Because Brown has maintained such a relatively low profile, voters don't have strong feelings about him."
Still, Brown is in good position for next year's election because of Democratic dominance of state politics, the pollsters say. But the survey exposes some potential vulnerabilities for the governor.
The survey shows dissatisfaction with the way Brown has handled state prisons, for example — just 31% say they approve. Brown signed a law in 2011 assigning thousands of nonviolent offenders to local jails instead of sending them to state prisons and has already come under fire for that policy from potential Republican challengers.
The governor also continues to battle federal courts over their orders to reduce the state inmate population.
Brown needs to educate voters about his record if he runs again, the pollsters said. But fellow Democrats would probably "snap back" to a party-line vote and support the governor "if it becomes Brown versus a Republican" next year, said Dave Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican half of the bipartisan polling team that conducted the survey.
Brown's ratings are strongest among Latinos, who make up a plurality of California residents but just about 23% of state voters. His stance on immigration issues may account for much of that support.
Fifty-seven percent of Latinos say they approve of the job Brown is doing on immigration, as opposed to 38% of whites and 43% of voters overall.
The survey also found far greater Latino support for a series of bills that Brown signed into law this year affecting immigrants here illegally. Those include measures allowing illegal residents to obtain driver's licenses and to practice law.
Juan Rodeles, 18, will be voting in his first gubernatorial election next year and is registered as a Democrat. But he has not decided whether to cast a ballot for Brown. While he praised Brown's handling of immigrant issues, the Cal State Bakersfield student says he wants a governor who will make jobs a priority.
Rodeles' parents, who both emigrated from Mexico, have been unemployed for months, making it difficult for them to support Juan and his two younger sisters. The economy continues to be the top issue for him and his family.
"There's just not enough jobs," he said. "I'm just looking for anyone who can find a solution," he said, "and nobody now seems to be talking about what we need."
Independent voters are also of two minds about Brown. Among those without a party preference, 55% approve of Brown's job performance, compared to 28% who disapprove. But just 26% of those voters say they'd cast a ballot for Brown, compared to 33% who say they'd probably or definitely vote for somebody else.
Those numbers may reflect continued uneasiness among Californians about the economy, said Drew Lieberman of the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. Nearly half of respondents — 49% — say the state is still on the wrong track, and just 37% say California is moving in the right direction.
"Californians have not yet transitioned to a positive posture" on the economy, Lieberman said.
Among those with lingering doubts about the state's future is Paula Faucheux, a registered nurse who left Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and is now a single mother of twins living in Burbank.
Faucheux, 48, says she doesn't know much about what Brown has accomplished in the past three years, but she's likely to vote for someone else.
"I pay high taxes. I know that," said Faucheux, who is registered without a party preference.
Faucheux says that although she has a stable job, she has trouble getting by.
"I'm not saving for retirement or college," she said. "I can't save money for the important things that I feel I have to save money for.
"It really is a struggle just to do the basics," she said.
The telephone survey of 1,503 registered California voters was conducted for USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times from Oct. 30-Nov. 5. The margin of error is 3.1 percentage points overall and 5.2 points for the Latino subgroup.