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New poll finds a volatile race for second place in California governor's contest

New poll finds a volatile race for second place in California governor's contest
Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox speaks during a debate at the California Theatre, Tuesday, May 8, 2018, in San Jose. (Aric Crabb / Associated Press)

The fight for second place in California's governor's race between Republican John Cox and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa remains unpredictable and volatile as the June 5 primary approaches, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom led both by 10 percentage points or more, validating every other poll that suggests it's a certainty the Democrat will claim one of the two spots on the November ballot.

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With the second slot up for grabs and a substantial bloc of undecided voters two weeks from the election, Newsom's campaign has unleashed a barrage of ads in an attempt to manipulate the primary vote. The strategy aims to influence who he'll face in the general election, with Cox — a conservative out of step with California's left-leaning voters on many issues including immigration policy — among his top choices.

If the June 5 primary election to select the top candidates for California governor were held today and these where the candidates, which candidate would you vote for?

Newsom's tactics are among the many undercurrents that could determine the outcome of the primary by swaying the 39% of California's likely voters who were undecided in this statewide poll, conducted over one month.

President Trump stirred up the race Friday with a tweet endorsing Cox, a timely coup that could energize GOP voters to push the wealthy Rancho Santa Fe businessman into the top two. At the same time, a handful of wealthy charter school supporters, including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Netflix founder Reed Hastings, are pouring millions into a pro-Villaraigosa campaign to push the former Los Angeles mayor into a runoff with Newsom. The effort that includes slashing at Cox as a Democrat in disguise in ads and mailers is aimed at Republican voters.

"It's very volatile for second place," said Bob Shrum, a former Democratic operative who is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "It seems very likely that this is a contest between Villaraigosa and Cox at this point. Other people do not seem to have made substantial progress."

According to the survey, Newsom led the field with support from 21% of likely voters, with Villaraigosa and Cox effectively tied for second at 11% and 10%, respectively.

The remaining candidates were mired in the single digits: Democratic state Treasurer John Chiang was backed by 6% of likely voters, Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) by 5%, and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin, a Democrat, was supported by 3%.

Unlike many other polls, the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times survey included all 27 candidates in the governor's race and the 32 candidates in the Senate race, along with their official ballot designations and party affilation as they will appear to voters on June 5. The names also were randomized, as they will be on the ballot.

The poll was conducted as the race for governor grew increasingly active and contentious. While it was in the field, vote-by-mail ballots began arriving at homes and Californians started seeing a major uptick in television advertisements and campaign mailers. The online survey of 835 Californians, including 691 registered voters and 517 voters deemed likely to turn out for the primary, was conducted between April 18 and May 18 in English and Spanish. The margin of sampling error was 4 percentage points in either direction.

Four out of 10 of the likely voters said they were not following the governor's race closely and 84% did not watch any of the candidate debates.

"We know from this data that this is not a race that has grabbed the state," said GOP strategist Mike Murphy, an analyst for the poll. "This is kind of a sleep-walking zombie election."

Newsom's support was strongest in the Bay Area, where he served two terms as mayor of San Francisco, as well as among registered Democrats who make up most of the state's electorate. Villaraigosa's strongest base of support was among likely Latino voters, though not by a wide margin over Newsom. Most notably, Newsom and Villaraigosa appear to be neck-and-neck in Los Angeles County, Villaraigosa's political home base, although the poll's margin of sampling error for the region is plus or minus 8 percentage points.

Villaraigosa is underperforming with Latinos and in Los Angeles, Shrum noted in his own analysis of the poll. "If he can improve that, he will be in better shape for second place," he said. Shrum suggested Cox ought to be advertising his Trump endorsement to try to consolidate the GOP vote.

In fact, Cox hit talk radio on Monday to discuss Trump's blessing on popular shows such as "John and Ken" on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles. He also rolled out a new statewide radio ad about the endorsement. New television ads and mailers are expected to follow this week.

Cox also has fully embraced efforts to repeal the 2017 statewide increase in gas taxes and vehicle license fees approved by Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature. The poll suggested campaigning against the gas tax may pay dividends. It found 51% of California voters favored repealing the law while 38% wanted to keep it. The increased taxes and fees are expected to raise $5.4 billion annually for road and bridge repairs and improvements to mass transit. The repeal is headed for the November ballot, and could drive turnout especially among conservative voters. That's one reason GOP members of Congress also have embraced the effort in hopes of blocking a Democratic wave in the midterm elections this fall.

The barrage of intense jockeying playing out on airwaves and in mailboxes across California has increasingly focused on Cox. Newsom and his labor and corporate supporters have released television ads that purport to contrast the Republican businessman's record on issues such as guns with the Democratic lieutenant governor. The ads actually reinforce Cox's conservative credentials on hot-button topics.

Meanwhile, Villaraigosa's wealthy charter-school backers are airing ads and sending mailers arguing that Cox is not a true Republican in an effort to improve Villaraigosa's chances. A new mailer sent to Republican voters describes Cox as a "Democratic Activist," and notes he did not vote for Trump in 2016 (which he now says he regrets).

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The Newsom campaign over the weekend released new negative ads against Villaraigosa and Chiang. The attacks on the treasurer were surprising because despite early promise in the race, Chiang has lagged behind the leaders and been relatively stagnant in all recent public polling. The move appears to be an insurance policy to ensure that Newsom's rival in the general election is a Republican.

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The poll found that nearly half of voters would be more likely to vote for a gubernatorial candidate who supports a state-sponsored single-payer healthcare system in California, compared to almost 30% who would be less likely to back such a candidate. Single-payer has been one of the biggest flashpoints in the governor's race, with Newsom backing the idea and Villaraigosa warning that it would require a massive tax increase. Both Cox and Allen dismiss it as a government boondoggle.

Brown, the politician they're all trying to succeed, remains more popular than not among Californians: 48% of voters approved of the job Brown has done and 40% disapproved. Trump had an approval rating of just 28% among California voters, with nearly 70% of giving him a thumbs-down — an indicator of the dangers awaiting Cox in a general election if he makes the top two by trumpeting the president's endorsement.

The poll also found Californians who have made up their minds on voting overwhelmingly support Sen. Dianne Feinstein's reelection bid. Feinstein was favored by 31% of likely voters while her top rival in the race, former state Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), was backed by 7%. That put De León — who has an enormous financial disadvantage in the race — in second place. That's enough to advance him to November but leaves a lot of ground to cover to make the race competitive.

Still, 41% of likely voters said they were undecided in that contest.

If the election for United States senator for California were held today and these were the candidates, which candidate would you vote for?

No Republican in the Senate race registered higher than 3% support in the USC/LAT survey. That includes neo-Nazi candidate Patrick Little, who emerged from obscurity after an outlier poll found that he was supported by 18% of California voters, putting him in second place behind Feinstein. The California Republican Party disavowed Little and kicked him out of its convention in San Diego earlier this month.

Murphy deemed the level of support for Feinstein, who has represented California in the Senate for more than a quarter-century, "weak." But he noted that the numbers for even her best-known rival were far smaller.

"You can't beat somebody with nobody," he said.

Jill Darling, survey director, USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, contributed to this report.

Twitter: @philwillon

Twitter: @LATseema

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