Newsom holds slight lead in CA governor race poll but many undecided

FILE: Voters cast their ballots at the Echo Park Deep Pool in Los Angeles on Nov. 8, 2016.
FILE: Voters cast their ballots at the Echo Park Deep Pool in Los Angeles on Nov. 8, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Democrats Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa are polling as the top two candidates for governor ahead of the June primary election, a new statewide survey from the Public Policy Institute of California released Thursday shows. 

Newsom, the state lieutenant governor, held a slight lead supported by 23 percent of the likely voters surveyed. Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor, came in second backed by 18 percent of those polled. 

But Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the policy institute, said with 30 percent of likely voters undecided about the race, there's a long way to go before the primary, which will cull out the top two candidates who go on the November 2018 runoff.

"We have more people choosing 'undecided' than choosing any of the individual candidates ...," said Baldassare. "That, first of all, tells you something — that people are going to be watching, listening to what the candidates have to say."

So far, Baldassare said, "nobody is a favorite."

Among the other major gubernatorial candidates, Democrats John Chiang and Delaine Eastin, along with Republicans John Cox and Travis Allen, all drew support in the single digits.

Undecideds also made up a big block of the voters weighing candidates in the U.S. Senate race. A third of the likely voters polled indicated no choice. Among those who expressed a preference, 45 percent selected Democratic U.S. Senate incumbent Dianne Feinstein, with challenger and California Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León following at 21 percent.

Voters were also surveyed on key measures that are headed or may be headed for the ballot next year. Fifty-nine percent of likely voters described single-payer health insurance as being very important to them. A majority of voters felt this way, regardless of party affiliation.

The recently enacted gas tax drew strong disapproval, with 54 percent of likely voters saying repealing the tax is very important to them. However, this sentiment was expressed more strongly by conservative voters: Eighty-five percent of Republican voters support a repeal of the gas tax, compared with 46 percent of independent voters and 36 percent of Democratic voters.

Almost half of the likely voters surveyed, 48 percent, described a state bond for affordable housing that will be on the ballot as being very important to them. More than half the likely voters who identified as Democrats, 58 percent, expressed this view, compared with 42 percent of independents and 37 percent of Republicans.

Only 18 percent of the likely voters surveyed said they considered expanding the size of the Legislature, as has been proposed, an important issue.

While Villaraigosa ranked behind Newsom as a gubernatorial choice, more Latino likely voters — 42 percent — said they would prefer the former L.A. mayor. A full third of white voters, meanwhile, were undecided.

Although their turnout can be low, Latino voters will be critical to the election, said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and a member of the KPCC Board of Trustees. 

"No candidate, even a Latino candidate, can win with only the Latino vote," according to Guerra. He said, however, the Latino vote provides "a tremendous base from which to go and attract other votes." 

Guerra said California's increasingly diverse group of officeholders is due to a changing electorate and greater pool of ethnically diverse candidates — but also to California's status as a blue state.

In November 2012, he said, only one person of color was among the 10 top statewide elected officials in California. 

"Today, as we speak, five of the 10 positions are held by people of color — that is [U.S. Sen.] Kamala Harris, [state Attorney General] Xavier Becerra, [Secretary of State] Alex Padilla, [state Controller] Betty Yee, and [state Treasurer] John Chiang," he said.

Both Guerra and Baldassare commented on a Northern California-Southern California political split that is evolving as more people of color, many from SoCal, enter state politics.

Guerra said, for example, union activity has shifted from its traditional Bay Area hub to Southern California, and traditionally progressive issues — such as the environment — are being seen through a different prism.

"It completely shifts the priorities," Guerra said. "You have to worry about progressive issues, which many Latinos, African Americans and Asians are very much for, but you also have to worry about issues that have to do with working-class situations."

These issues include workforce housing, employment in growing and traditional industries, he said.

The two leading gubernatorial candidates also represent a north-south divide in their bases of support, Baldassare said. While Villaraigosa is well-known in Southern California, he's less known in Northern California. The opposite is true for Newsom.

"I think that each of the candidates is going to be making those efforts to the voters in the other part of the state, where they are not from, to try to convince them that they understand," Baldassare said.

"But there is definitely a north-south split that makes it, I think, a little more challenging for these candidates to get known and to be appreciated by the voters," he said.  

There is also a racial component in the candidates' support:  Villaraigosa had stronger backing among Latinos compared to all likely voters. Newsom drew his strongest support from white voters. Similarly, Baldassare said, Chiang polled well among Asian likely voters.

"There definitely is a racial as well as a regional component to where these candidates are, in these early moments of the campaign, drawing their support," Baldassare said.