Newsom will advance to the general election, but it’s too early to predict who will join him in November.
If you are a California Democratic Party( (CDP) insider, you have probably heard rumors that California Treasurer John Chiang’s campaign for California Governor is on its last legs. Despite raising over $7 million and spending over $2 million in 2017 alone, Chiang is languishing at the number four spot in the polls, with just about 8% of the vote. More troubling for his campaign, a recent poll put former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa‘s chances at 21%, within the margin of error of front runner Gavin Newsom‘s 23%,. This has made the media pronounce this a two-person race between the former mayors of California’s best known cities.
For John Chiang, who had started with a healthy measure of support from Democratic Party members, rumors of his campaign’s demise threaten to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. As delegates to the California Democratic Party convention lose faith in his ability to win, they have been switching their endorsement votes to progressive darling Delaine Eastin or JFK-wannabe Gavin Newsom (Villaraigosa seems to be universally loaded within the party), leaving Chiang with a deadly aroma of failure. Similarly, Chiang’s low poll numbers have led to his fundraising becoming flat in the last half of 2017, when he spent almost as much as he raised.
I started this article planning to write about the demise of Chiang’s campaign. I had just written a post on the death foretold of Kevin De Leon’s US Senate campaign – which is not nearly as widely rumored by Party insiders -, and it seemed logical to at least mention Chiang’s as well. But as I looked into the reasons for the rumors, it became clear that insiders were wrong. While it’s true that Chiang’s polling numbers show no movement despite having campaigned heavily for the last year, the same is true of all other candidates. The race today stands pretty much exactly as it did last spring, when the roster of major Democratic candidates was finalized. There has been no movement for anyone because voters, simply, are not paying attention and they are responding most of all to name familiarity. Absent a major scandal, Newsom will earn a spot in the general simply because his name recognition and ballot designation of Lieutenant Governor guarantee that an important fraction of the electorate mindlessly vote for him. What will define who else makes it to the general election will be the next two months of active campaigning, not the last fifteen.
A look at the polls over the last two years, show that Newsom has been consistently polling at ~24% since October 2016, despite spending $2.3 million in 2017 alone. The consistency of his numbers is interesting, because his numbers are similar regardless of the pollster and they seem independent on who else is in the race – the early polls included potential candidates that ended up not running. Newsom got 23% of the vote in an October 2016 Berkeley IGS poll, 25% in a January 2017 Public Policy Polling poll, 28 % in a March 2017 Berkeley IGS poll, 26 % in a September 2017 Berkeley IGS poll, 23% in a November 2017 PPIC poll, 26% in a December 2017 Berkeley IGS poll, 25% in a January 2018 USC poll and 23% in a January 2018 PPIC poll. He spent almost $3 million in 2017 to see no movement.
Chiang‘s numbers vary a little according to the pollster, he has somewhere between 5 and 9% of the vote, but have not shown much movement either. He was at 5% in the May 2017 Berkeley IGS poll, went up to 7% in September and was back down to 5% in the December 2017 poll. Both the November and January PPIC polls had him at 9%. He spent just over $2 million in 2017.
It’s a similar story with Delaine Eastin, who went from 3% to 5% from May to December 2017 in IGS polls and form 3% in the November PPIC poll to 4% in the January one. She spent under $500K in 2017.
As far as the Republican candidates go, John Cox has been in the race for longest. His numbers peaked at 18% in a March 2017 poll, when he was the only Republican in the race, but have been consistent at 7-9% since other Republicans joined. Assemblymember Travis Allen, a Trump supporter with serious accusations of sexual harassment against him, has been polling at around 7% while former Congressmember Doug Ose, a moderate who just entered the race, is at around 3%.
Undecided votes, meanwhile have gone from about 36% in May of 2017 to 26% now.
As shown, there are small differences in the percentages of votes candidates have been getting from poll to poll and between pollsters, but as they don’t seem to reflect either an upwards or downwards trend, even as undecideds show preferences This suggests that these small differences are just noise and that undecideds are not breaking for any of these candidates. Again, a sign that voters are not really paying attention, and that their responses are an indication of name familiarity, aided by candidate description, than of actual preference.
This is particularly well illustrated in the case of Antonio Villaraigosa, whose poll numbers seem to indicate people are focusing on his ballot designation rather than his name. In the Berkelegy IGC polls, where Villaraigosa is referred to as “former Los Angeles Mayor”, he went from getting 6% and 11% of the vote in the October 2016 and March 2017 polls, which also listed Eric Garcetti, the current Mayor of LA, as a candidate – to getting 17% in the September and December 2017 which did not list Garcetti. Villaraigosa got 19% and 21% of the vote in the November and January PPIC polls, where he was also described as the former LA Mayor. However, in the January 2018 poll conducted for USC where he is described as a businessman he only gets 10% of the vote, which is in tune with the 11% he gets in the internal polls separately conducted for the Chiang and Newsom campaign.
This dramatic difference in poll numbers is significant because while Villaraigosa will be able to describe himself as having been Mayor of LA on the candidate statement that appears in the voter guide, he will not be able to use that as his ballot designation. It remain to be seen how many people will vote for him if they don’t immediately recognize him for his former position when they see his name in the ballot.
Static numbers like this show that voters are making their selections based on name recognition and candidate description rather than on preferences based on the distinguishing characteristics of the candidates. As these being the active part of their campaign, and media coverage and the proximity of the election awakes voters’ interest, the polls are likely to change significantly.