California Democratic Oasis? Jerry Brown Doubles His Lead Over Whitman As Boxer Holds Steady

At a time when some analysts including The Daily Beast’s Election Oracle are predicting that Republicans will gain control of not just the House but the Senate due to a big enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters, a Los Angeles Times poll finds California is a kind of refuge from Democratic doom and gloom — a place where former Gov. Jerry Brown is now actually widened his lead against mega-campaign-ad spending and former eBay chief GOPer Meg Whitman to double digits.

Meanwhile, despite other polls showing the race between Democratic incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina tightening, the LAT poll shows Boxer has maintained a health lead. Details:

Defections from Meg Whitman’s ranks on the part of women, Latinos and nonpartisan voters have fueled a surge by Jerry Brown in the race for governor, according to a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll.

The shift comes after a tumultuous month for the Republican candidate that has led some voters to question her veracity and her handling of accusations by an illegal immigrant housekeeper.

Brown, the Democratic attorney general and former governor, led Whitman 52% to 39% among likely voters, the poll found. His advantage has more than doubled since a Times/USC poll in September.

And Boxer — never one of the state’s most beloved politicians but someone who repeatedly won her races:

The abrupt movement in the race for governor came as Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer held onto her 8-point margin over Republican Carly Fiorina in the U.S. Senate contest. Boxer’s 50% to 42% lead was statistically unchanged from September’s 51% to 43% edge.

What’s going on? In California at least — a model that may not be applicable to other states but could provide some lessons for Democrats — it seems the GOPers have been unable to expand their coalition while the Democrats have been able to at least reactive theirs:

For both Democrats, the month between the two polls found the party’s strongest supporters rallying to the candidates’ sides: liberals, women and Latinos either solidified or expanded their backing for Brown and Boxer. Nonpartisan voters, whom Republicans had counted on to overcome the Democratic advantage in voter registration, moved away from the two Republican candidates, and moderate voters also tilted toward the Democrats.

And the Times also found evidence of what some other analysts have noticed as well: deep-pocket millionaire candidates who pump huge sums of personal money into their campaigns are not necessarily getting a return on their investment. And, in fact, some voters are resentful:

Paula Bennett, a schoolteacher in the Sacramento-area town of Acampo, said she was drawn to Brown in part by the blizzard of cash Whitman has thrown at the race.

“I like the little guy; he didn’t have the money behind him like she did,” she said in a follow-up interview, adding that she sided with Brown for the same reason that she favors a mom-and-pop establishment over a retail behemoth.

“We don’t shop at Walmart. We shop at the local store. He just seemed like more of a down-home candidate.”

Although she is Republican, Bennett is also siding with Boxer. She said she was offended by both Whitman’s and Fiorina’s infusions of personal cash into their races.

“That message that they’re sending to people is a very bad choice,” she said. “We’re looking to people to act their values rather than throw money at causes. People are holding their money really closely and those candidates are really splurging.”

So is California a Democratic oasis? Some of the same factors that threaten to sweep away Democrats across the country are not in play as much here, or they are at least counterbalanced.

I’d add another factor that doesn’t come up in polls, articles and blog posts.

Jerry Brown is continuing to have the image of a somewhat quirky candidate. Partisans actively working to defeat him may hate him, but to many he comes off as a somewhat inoffensive original — for better or worse. It’s hard to hate Brown personally, either due to his assertions of the way he comes off in debates. Johnny Carson called him “Governor Moonbeam,” but the hippy era is long past and if anything he comes off now as a bit eccentric but earnest.

Whitman’s Democratic partisans blast her for being brittle or pre-programmed, but perhaps her real problems are a combination: a)the Democratic base coming home in a state with a damaged-goods Republican party, b)her ads saturating TV and radio so much that they lose their effectiveness, c)Brown not coming across as someone who doesn’t instill fear d)widespread publicity over the amount of personal money she is pouring into the campaign, e)Barack Obama’s continued (relative) popularity in California, f)the widespread publicity and airing of an ad that twinned the enormously unpopular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s words with hers so that she appeared to a virtual echo of him…with Brown’s uderlying message that this kind of Governor didn’t work before so why try it again g)her media battle with her former Latino housekeeper.

But, on balance, the 2010 election is proving to be one of the most confusing ever. There are conflicting reports on the upcoming Democratic wipeout, with some reports suggesting all is not (yet) lost in terms of original predictions of the beating Dems are expected to get at the polls. For instance, McClatchy Newspapers reports on a seeming Democratic rebound:

For months, Republican Ken Buck held a clear edge in his bid to win a key U.S. Senate seat away from the Democrats in Colorado.

Now, in the final days of the campaign, Buck was on the defensive as he met with a friendly group of Republican businesswomen in a Denver office building on a crisp autumn evening.

“I’m not taking your birth control. I’m not taking your Social Security. I’m not taking your student loans,” he said. “If I was the person in that commercial, I wouldn’t vote for that guy. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.”

Ridiculous or not, Buck’s once-solid lead over Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet is shrinking. As in several other Senate races around the country, Democrats here are cranking up President Barack Obama’s get-out-the-vote machinery from 2008, working to paint the Republicans as extreme, energizing some of their own base voters and drawing closer in polls.

The result is that in a handful of states – Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – the Democrats now have at least a fighting chance to hold Senate seats that looked lost in September. If they succeed, they greatly increase their odds of retaining control of the Senate, even as they still appear likely to lose control of the House of Representatives.

“It now appears that the long advantage that the Republicans and Mr. Buck had has dissipated,” said Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver pollster.

There are two key reasons, Ciruli said. First, the Democrats are targeting messages to women on issues such as abortion and rape, and to older women on Social Security. “The base is coming together, and they’re probably picking up some unaffiliated voters,” he said.

Second, Ciruli said, Buck has made controversial comments on social issues, such as likening homosexuality to alcoholism, providing a target for Democrats and deflecting attention from his successful attacks on the Democratic economic agenda in Washington. “He made some serious faux pas,” Ciruli said, “getting into social issues and reinforcing the Democratic message that he’s too extreme.”


Polling numbers’ maven Nate Silver is sticking
with his predictions that the Democrats will be facing a stressful election night indeed. In discussing suggestions that the GOP will take over the Senate he writes this:

Even if Republicans were able to win Nevada, however — as well as West Virginia and Illinois, and other states like Pennsylvania and Colorado where their candidate seems to have a small lead — they would still need to win either Washington or California to get their 51st senator. In those states, we think talk of the races having tightened is a little overdone, and that the Democratic candidates — Patty Murray and Barbara Boxer — still hold a 3- to 4-point lead in each state. This late in the race, a 3- to 4-point lead in the consensus of polls translates to around an 80 percent chance of winning, according to our model.

A similar dynamic is manifest in Pennsylvania: that race clearly has tightened, but most nonpartisan polls still give the Republican Pat Toomey a small lead, including a tracking poll that had previously shown an edge for Joe Sestak. Our model still sees Mr. Toomey as about a 3- or 4-point favorite, which translates into victory chances a hair over 80 percent.

Certainly, Mr. Sestak could win his race in Pennsylvania. But if he does, that might suggest that the enthusiasm gap isn’t quite as large as some pollsters were expecting, or that there were other problems with the polls that had implications in a number of races around the country. In that universe, the Democrats would probably be favored to win at least one or two of the races in the group including Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, and West Virginia — all of which appear slightly closer to us than Pennsylvania — and Republicans would be long shots to win in California or Washington, where Democrats already have an edge.

In other words, Pennsylvania — while fascinating on its own merits — isn’t likely to be the state that prevents Republicans from achieving a majority that they otherwise would have claimed. Instead, Washington and California remain the states that represent the biggest barriers to Republicans winning a 51st seat. What should make Republican poll-watchers happy is if new polls come out in the next week showing their candidates ahead in either of those states, particularly if they come from pollsters whose surveys do not ordinarily show a Republican lean.

Bottom line?

At this point, California could remain part of the firewall and may show at least one part of the country where the Demcrats were able to reactivate their winning coalition partly due to their efforts and partly due to the perceived baggage of GOP candidates.