Senate candidate Kevin de León has campaigned as the progressive alternative to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but with the election just weeks away, his strongest support is coming from Republicans, according to a new USC-Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
De León planned his campaign as an insurgency from the left against his fellow Democrat, but a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution: The battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court made Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, a high-profile target of President Trump.
On conservative media, commentators have urged California Republicans to cast ballots against Feinstein as retribution.
The poll, which was in the field while the Kavanaugh fight raged, can’t show cause and effect, but does clearly indicate an unexpected twist in the race: De León, one of the most liberal candidates to run statewide in a general election, now gets more support from registered Republicans than from liberal Democrats.
“It is a profound irony, given the rationale of his campaign, that De León is getting more support from Trump supporters,” said Robert Shrum, co-director of USC’s Center for the Political Future. “He’s doing better among people who fundamentally disagree with his message than people who agree with his message.”
In a state as heavily Democratic as California, gaining the support of Trump backers isn’t a ticket to success. The poll shows Feinstein leading De León by 44% to 31% among likely voters in her bid for a fifth full term in the Senate.
And much of De León’s Republican support is soft, with a significant share saying they only lean toward voting for him. About a quarter of respondents are still undecided in the race, including more than a third of Republicans and 29% of independents.
If the undecided voters were to divide along the same lines as those who already have made up their minds, Feinstein’s lead would grow by several points, said survey director Jill Darling.
“Many of the Republican voters in the poll are already sitting out the Senate race, so quite a few of those people are likely to just stay home” or at least skip the Senate race when they cast their ballots, Darling added.
Currently, many Republican voters don’t know a lot about De León, said longtime Republican strategist Mike Murphy, co-director of the USC center.
“He’s just not Dianne, and they don’t know anything about him,” Murphy said.
It’s an open question whether Republicans would maintain their support if they learned more about the former state Senate leader, who was the architect of California’s “sanctuary state” policy, among other positions he holds that most Republican voters reject.
De León has said he entered the Senate race in part because he believed that Feinstein was not taking a hard enough stance against Trump and was too moderate for increasingly progressive California. He has actively courted the left wing of the state party, which helped him win the Democratic Party endorsement over the summer.
Since entering the race, De León has acknowledged that his lack of statewide name recognition would be a hurdle, but he hasn’t raised the money needed to run campaign ads on television in California’s expensive media markets.
The $4 million Feinstein has in the bank for the final weeks of the campaign dwarfs the approximately $300,000 De León has left.
“In some ways the worst thing that could happen to him is to have the money to go on television,” Shrum said. “If he did have the resources, he would jeopardize that Republican support.”
Feinstein hasn’t educated Republican voters about her opponent either. She has not run campaign ads on television since before the primary.
Nor is De León likely to have a chance to stake out his positions in a big televised debate. Feinstein and De León met on stage Wednesday for a midday forum moderated by the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco. The event, the only time before election day the two are currently scheduled to meet, is available online, but no television station has committed to airing it during a more convenient time for voters.
This is the second election in a row in which the state’s top-two primary system has given Californians a choice between two Democrats for the Senate, and enthusiasm has remained low in the race.
Perhaps because of that, the percentage of undecided voters has remained fairly static for months across multiple polls.
The USC-L.A. Times poll of 1,180 Californians, including 794 considered likely to vote in the election, was conducted Sept. 17 through Oct. 14. That timing, during the height of the hearings into allegations of sexual assault made against now-Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh, may have intensified GOP support for De León, Darling said, although it’s not possible to know for sure.
Feinstein has consistently led by double digits in polls since she won the June primary with 44% of the vote.
The current poll shows Feinstein leading De León among likely voters, with a 26-percentage-point lead among liberal Democrats and 39 points among moderate Democrats. She has the support of 60% of registered Democrats, compared with 25% for De León.
De León leads by 24 points among moderate Republicans and by about 20 points among conservative Republicans. In total, 43% of registered Republicans said they back De León. That’s a greater share of his current support than the liberal Democrats expected to be his base.
Feinstein is leading across all age groups, with her greatest lead among voters age 65 and older.
De León, who would be the first Latino senator from California, nearly matches Feinstein’s support among Latino voters, though 27% of Latino respondents said they remain undecided. Feinstein has a small edge among white voters, within the poll’s margin of error, and has a 42-point lead among other minority voters.
In the primary, Feinstein won every county in the state, and she continues to dominate across nearly all regions, the poll shows.
She’s also ahead by 12 points in the more conservative Central Valley. The two are closely matched in the region that includes Orange County, San Diego and the Inland Empire.
Conducted online in English and Spanish, the poll's margin of error is 4 percentage points in either direction for likely voters and larger for subcategories. Poll respondents were drawn from a probability-based panel maintained by USC’s Center for Economic and Social Research for its Understanding America Study. Responses were weighted to accurately reflect known demographics of the state population. A full description of the methodology, poll questions and data are posted on the USC website.
More information about the poll is available at bit.ly/USCpolldata.