California Democratic 2020 presidential primary is a wide-open race, poll finds

California Democrats, like these delegates to the recent state party convention in San Francisco, are hearing from a lot of presidential candidates, but don't have a clear favorite yet, a new poll finds.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

With the Democratic presidential field now largely set, the race in the nation’s largest state is wide open, with at least five candidates in serious contention and no clear favorite.

The findings from a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, done for The Times, provide bad news for some of the contenders, starting with Sen. Kamala Harris.

Harris needs strong support in her home state’s primary if she is to have a shot at the party’s presidential nomination. The poll finds her in fourth place, albeit narrowly, trailing former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.


Harris draws consistent support from across demographic groups and ideological lines and is widely cited as a second choice by voters, but she has no constituency that she dominates, the poll found.

Although Biden leads the race, he’s far from a commanding front-runner in the state that will send the largest group of delegates to next year’s Democratic nominating convention. Biden has support from 22% of likely Democratic primary voters, the poll found. That’s similar to his level in a recent poll of voters in Iowa, which holds the first contest of the primary season, but well below his standing in some national surveys.

Warren and Sanders followed close behind, with 18% and 17% respectively, essentially a tie.

Harris, at 13%, and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., at 10%, round out the top tier. No other candidate topped 3%, and many received less than half a point of support.

“Our poll indicates that the contest is a wide-open affair, with five candidates in double digits and none dominating,” said Mark DiCamillo, the veteran pollster who directs the Berkeley IGS Poll.


Since candidates in California’s primary can only gain delegates by winning at least 15% of the vote, either statewide or by congressional district, “the battle could become fierce.”

“California’s role in deciding the Democratic nominee will be huge,” said DiCamillo.

The poll, which also asked voters about issue priorities, surveyed 2,131 California voters deemed likely to cast ballots in the Democratic primary. It tested support for 18 candidates who had met the requirements to qualify for the first Democratic primary debate as of the beginning of this month, when the survey began. The primary is open to registered Democrats and non-party voters.

The likely primary voters were among 4,435 registered voters statewide surveyed by the poll, conducted online June 4-10. The poll results have an estimated sampling error of roughly 3 percentage points in either direction.

How the Berkeley IGS poll was done »

For Warren, the poll reinforces national surveys that have shown her gaining ground in recent weeks and comes amid strong signs of grass-roots support in the state.

She drew a crowd of more than 6,000 to an appearance in Oakland on the eve of the California Democratic Party convention early this month. At the party gathering in San Francisco, she was by far the most enthusiastically received of the numerous candidates who spoke to the 5,000 delegates and their guests.


Many were obviously familiar with her: The crowd gave a knowing laugh when the Massachusetts senator launched into her detail-laden speech by declaring, “I have a plan for that” — a line that has become a campaign mantra for her.

The result is more problematic for Sanders, Warren’s rival for support of voters on the left.

Sanders’ strategists see California as a major opportunity for him. He took 46% of the vote in the state’s primary in 2016, and his aides have hoped he could hold much of that. So far, he has not, the poll indicates.

The top three candidates each have a distinct appeal. Biden gets about half his support from self-described moderate and conservative Democrats; Warren gets about half her backing from those who call themselves “very liberal.”

Sanders trails Warren among voters on the left but far outpaces his rivals among voters younger than 30, despite being the oldest candidate in the race. He gets 39% of young voters, compared with 19% for Warren and 9% for Biden.


Harris has a potential lifeline as the candidate voters list most often as their second choice. She gets that nod from 21% of the primary voters. Warren also does well on that measure, at 17%. Biden and Sanders are at 12%, suggesting they may have more trouble expanding their appeal.

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The poll also asked potential primary voters about nine ideas to change federal government policy that Democratic candidates have advocated. Voters were asked whether a Democratic president should “move immediately to adopt” the policy, “take steps in the direction” of the policy or not adopt it.

The strongest support for immediate action went to expanding background checks for all gun purchases, increasing taxes on the wealthy and higher pay for K-12 teachers nationwide. Immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for some people in the country illegally and a Green New Deal that moves the economy to renewable energy also drew large majorities supporting immediate adoption.

Support ranged from 88% for immediately adopting background checks for firearms sales to 61% for a Green New Deal.

By contrast, most Democratic primary voters wanted to move more slowly on a government-run, “Medicare for all” healthcare system — a signature issue for Sanders. While 48% of voters said they would like to see immediate adoption of Medicare for all, 43% said they would prefer the next president take steps in that direction, and 9% said they opposed the idea.


Voters were also closely divided when asked about making public four-year colleges tuition-free.

Two proposals pushed by advocates of criminal justice reform — reducing the length of federal prison sentences for low-level offenders and legalizing recreational marijuana nationwide — also drew split responses. In both cases, about 4 in 10 voters favored immediate adoption, and a similarly sized group backed more limited steps.

Almost 1 in 5 likely primary voters said they opposed nationwide marijuana legalization. That was the highest level of opposition to any of the nine plans.

On several of the issues, Biden supporters contrasted with backers of Warren or Sanders.

Only about a third of Biden’s supporters, for example, backed immediate adoption of Medicare for all, compared with about two-thirds of Sanders and Warren supporters. Biden favors expanding Medicare by allowing Americans to buy into the plan if they wish, but does not back Medicare for all.

Earlier this month, Biden released a policy on climate change that adopted some of the main goals pushed by advocates of the Green New Deal. Fewer than half of his supporters, however, said they backed immediate adoption of a Green New Deal program. That contrasts with almost 8 in 10 of Warren and Sanders supporters.

Democrats propose ambitious plans on climate change »


That gap on issues matches voters’ self-descriptions. Biden has 36% of likely primary voters who described themselves as moderate or conservative, a group that represents roughly one-third of the likely primary voters in the state. No other candidate got more than 13% of that group.

Among California Democratic primary voters, those who describe themselves as “very liberal” are about as numerous as moderates or conservatives. That’s not true in much of the rest of the country, and that may be one reason Biden has had a bigger lead in several national polls than he appears to have in California.

Warren and Sanders each have a notable gender division in support — she gets more backing from women, he from men. Other candidates display less of a gender gap.

Biden got his strongest support among voters 50 and older. He received the backing of about 27% of them, about twice as much as Harris and Warren. Sanders got only 11%.

Sanders led among Latino voters. That is probably related to his nationwide appeal among younger voters, since the Latino electorate is younger on average than the rest of the state’s voters; Latinos make up more than 4 in 10 primary voters younger than 30.

In 2016, Sanders’ strong support among young voters was not enough to win the primary against Hillary Clinton, in part because older voters outnumber younger ones. Those older than 50 made up well over half of the likely primary electorate in the poll, while those younger than 30 were only about 1 in 8, consistent with the typical turnout.


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Age itself could become an issue.

Asked which traits they saw as an advantage and which a disadvantage for a presidential candidate, 88% of voters said that “decades of political experience” would be an advantage for a candidate; only 11% saw that as a disadvantage.

At the same time — and in somewhat of a contradiction — by 76% to 22%, voters said that being younger than 50 would be an advantage.

By a lopsided 83% to 16%, voters said they thought being older than 70 would be a disadvantage. Biden is 76, Sanders, 77; Warren will turn 70 on June 22.

More than two-thirds of the primary voters saw being a woman or a person of color as an advantage for a candidate, a potential boost for Harris. They divided closely on whether being gay would be an advantage or a disadvantage, a possible question mark for Buttigieg.

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As for the candidates lower down in the standings, among their biggest challenges is getting recognition in a huge, diverse field.

The top four candidates are all well known and well liked. Roughly 90% or more of the primary voters have an impression of them, and for two-thirds or more that image is favorable. Harris and Warren are viewed the most favorably.

Buttigieg remains unfamiliar to almost 4 in 10 primary voters. His image is heavily favorable among those who do have an opinion, though, suggesting that he could gain support as he becomes better known.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas have name recognition similar to Buttigieg’s. But about 1 in 5 primary voters has a negative view of O’Rourke.

After that, familiarity drops quickly. Fewer than half of voters had an opinion of Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York or Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, for example, and even fewer knew other candidates.

Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak in San Francisco contributed to this report.