California poll shows Obama with smaller lead

Even in vividly blue California, President Obama’s luster has faded since his historic victory here in 2008, a new poll has found.

Despite his sizable lead over Mitt Romney, the president is unlikely to repeat his historic 2008 margin of victory here because of his diminished power to pull in people who don’t traditionally support Democrats, according to the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

The drop in appeal across party and demographic lines has translated, at this point, to a 14-point edge over the Republican nominee among likely voters — well below Obama’s 24-point victory in 2008, the biggest margin in modern times.

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The same trends that are making the presidential contest tight in the battleground states are evident in California, particularly the decline in support for Obama among white voters and men. In 2008, Obama won male voters by 18 percentage points over Republican nominee John McCain; he currently leads Romney by 1 point among likely male voters. Among white men, Obama beat McCain by two percentage points; Romney now leads among them by 17 points.

Mike Denny is among those who voted for Obama in 2008, grew disenchanted during his tenure and has decided to support Romney and running mate Paul D. Ryan in November.

“I thought maybe there would be some kind of change,” said Denny, a Republican from Rossmoor. “I thought he was somebody different, someone new with new ideas, someone with young ideas. But it’s the same old thing.”

Denny, who owns a graphics company, said he was immediately disappointed when Obama spent the first part of his term tackling healthcare reform, which Denny opposes because of its impact on small business. He feels the president neglected the economy, and thinks Romney’s corporate resume is better suited to right the nation’s fiscal problems.

“We need to get jobs back,” said the 45-year-old. “I think he has a plan to put more jobs into the economy, and he’s got more business experience.”

The poll, conducted for The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, showed that Obama’s level of support now reflects the traditional advantage for a Democrat in California, rather than exceeding it as he did in 2008.

His margin is 3 percentage points shy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s lead over Republican Elizabeth Emken in the same poll, and 1 point more than Gov. Jerry Brown’s winning margin over GOP nominee Meg Whitman in the 2010 race for governor.

The poll found that 51% of Californians believe that the nation is moving in the wrong direction, not surprising in a state where unemployment continues to be higher than the national average and the state is mired in budget woes, facing either tax hikes or biting cuts to schools and public services. But that was an improvement over a 2011 poll that showed nearly 3 out of 4 held the same sentiment.

The fact that the president is doing well here despite qualms about the direction of the nation reflects Democrats’ strength in California, where not a single Republican was elected to statewide office in 2010. Obama maintains strong support among key Democratic constituencies. He leads Romney among likely Latino voters by 52 percentage points, and among likely female voters by 26 points — numbers roughly consistent with his performance against McCain.

Melyssa Ramirez, 24, says she supports Obama because she doesn’t believe Romney is interested in creating a level playing field for all.

“He doesn’t see the big picture about being a team player,” said the Democrat, who is studying for a master’s degree in education at Cal State Long Beach. “Obama is more of a team player — if we all succeed, we all get ahead.”

Ramirez said Obama’s positions on education, abortion and immigration were key to her decision. The Whittier resident, who was born in the United States to parents who immigrated from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, strongly supports Obama’s executive order earlier this year that allows some undocumented young people to live and work in the country legally. She said friends who are living here illegally have suffered.

“A lot of them couldn’t go to school, couldn’t get jobs. I have a couple friends who were able to get their BAs but they graduated and couldn’t get a job because of their legal status,” she said. “I completely understand those people who are being criminals and not contributing positively to society, yeah, they shouldn’t be granted citizenship. They should go back where they came from. But those who come for the American dream and are actually doing their work and getting it, then they should be given the opportunity.”

The poll, conducted by the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm American Viewpoint, surveyed 1,504 registered voters by phone between Oct. 15 and 21. The survey has an overall margin of error of 2.9 percentage points in either direction, with a higher margin of error for subgroups.

Obama and Romney both hold on to roughly four-fifths of registered voters in their political parties, although Obama does 4 percentage points better among registered Republicans than Romney does among registered Democrats. But another driving force of Obama’s lead is his support among voters who decline to state a party preference. The president wins this group of registered voters 58% to 34%, a 7-point uptick from a May USC/Times poll.

The two men also win their expected geographic zones and age groups, with Obama performing best in Los Angeles County and the Bay Area, and Romney doing well in the rest of Southern California, the Central Valley and the area north of Sacramento. Among registered voters ages 18 to 49, Obama has nearly double the support of Romney, winning 63% to Romney’s 32%. Among those older than 50, the men are nearly at parity, though Obama continues to lead, 48 to 45.

Overall, the findings of the latest poll show why the presidential candidates regularly visit California to raise money but rarely appear on the stump here — the state’s views at the national level appear hardened in favor of Democrats.

“I mean really, what is there to say?” asked Linda DiVall, founder of the Republican firm American Viewpoint, as she considered the presidential poll numbers.