The newest poll in the 2014 race for governor finds a bit of new political history being made by Gov. Jerry Brown: the first chief executive in California in almost three decades to have a majority of voter support going in to a re-election campaign season.
Not since former Gov. George Deukmejian has a sitting governor sought another term and not either floundered or trailed in public polls taken during the summer preceding the fall battle.
Wednesday night’s poll from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California finds Brown with 52 percent support among likely voters surveyed in the contest against Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, who was chosen by 33 percent of likely voters. Eleven percent were undecided, and 4 percent actually told the pollsters they’ll skip the race altogether.
Brown’s 19-point lead is due to how well he’s solidified his support among Democratic voters (80 percent); his solid numbers among independents (a 24-point lead); and the level of support for his re-election in vote-rich Los Angeles (63 percent back Brown).
Kashkari, a former U.S. assistant treasury secretary in his first race for elected office, is almost even with Brown among white voters; and he polls well in both the Inland Empire (an 8-point lead) and the Central Valley (only 2 points behind Brown).
But Brown remains in the driver’s seat in his attempt at winning an unprecedented fourth term as governor. In fact, no governor of the Golden State has enjoyed such a comfortable cushion in the polls since, well, “Top Gun” was the No.1 movie in theaters.
It was the summer of 1986 when Deukmejian, the GOP incumbent, was favored by a majority of voters over his opponent — the late Democrat Tom Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles — as much as Jerry Brown is over Neel Kashkari. On June 2, 1986, the nonpartisan Field Poll gave Deukmejian an 18-point lead; by early August, he was still favored by a majority, though with a smaller lead of 11 points.
It only got better for George Deukmejian from there. He went on to win a second term on Nov. 4, 1986, with an impressive 60 percent of the vote.
In the end, every incumbent governor of California since the late Gov. Pat Brown in 1966 has won re-election. But the three governors who served after Deukmejian all found themselves with, at best, a plurality of support in their early campaigns — never a majority like Brown has now.
Former Gov. Pete Wilson was actually losing in the summer of 1994, badly trailing Democrat Kathleen Brown. Former Gov. Gray Davis led his GOP challenger, Bill Simon, in July 2002. But Davis was winning with only 41 percent in that month’s Field Poll, and he managed to get only 47 percent of the votes cast on Election Day … a weak victory that no doubt helped fuel his recall from office the following October.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as formidable as he ended up being in November 2006, didn’t look so tough when his re-election campaign began. Two statewide polls in the summer of 2006, one each by PPIC and Field, found the action star governor ahead of Democratic challenger, Phil Angelides, with only a 45 percent plurality of likely voters. Schwarzenegger’s weak public support had its seeds in his 2005 special election initiatives that voters resoundingly rejected.
All of this is just a way of saying that even though things can change, Jerry Brown seems to currently have some pretty rare electoral breathing room.
Kashkari has struggled to make the needle move in any real way since beating back a more conservative GOP challenger in June. In fact, the summer doldrums of the 2014 campaign seem especially strong. The new PPIC poll finds that just 53 percent of surveyed voters say they are following news about the race for governor, compared with 70 percent in July 2010 and 68 percent in July 2006. That can’t help the guy who still has relatively low name ID.
If there’s any real political question mark at this point for the iconic Brown, it’s why his job approval numbers are outpacing his re-election numbers. PPIC’s new poll shows that 56 percent of likely voters like how he’s handling things, slightly more than those who say they’re willing to give him another term. Is there an enthusiasm gap of sorts? Hard to say until the campaign season really begins to shape up — a campaign season that Jerry Brown will no doubt delay for as long as possible, choosing instead to govern with more support than any incumbent California governor at this stage in more than a generation.