Poll To Brown: Don't Measure The Drapes Just Yet

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There are 321 days left until California voters go to the polls and choose their next governor. That's a long time, but not so long that political junkies won't read tonight's new poll and wonder this: might the all-but-official Democratic heavyweight candidate end up losing?

It's not that crazy a question, given the Public Policy Institute of California survey that shows Jerry Brown leading Meg Whitman in a potential matchup by just six points.

PPIC found that likely voters surveyed pick Brown over Whitman 43%-37%, with a full 20% still undecided. (The margin of error in the poll, which is here, is +/- 2%.)

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Photo: Getty Images

Sure, that shows the former governor and incumbent Attorney General still winning the contest. But not by what one might expect, given his four decades in California politics and Whitman's mere few months in the state's political arena.

One might also consider it a warning sign that so many of the voters surveyed by PPIC are undecided. Digging deeper into the questions, Brown's favorability came in at only 35% among all voters. And 29% of Democrats told the pollsters they "don't know enough to have an opinion."

Dems don't know enough about Jerry Brown? Huh?

Brown fared better in potential matchups with Republicans Tom Campbell and Steve Poizner (more on the GOP battle in a moment).

While he obviously has a high negative rating among Republicans (59%), perhaps most troubling for Brown supporters are the 39% of independent voters surveyed who say they have an unfavorable opinion of him. Remember, one in five California voters is now an independent ('decline to state'), members of the fastest growing part of the state electorate. Many independents supported the 2003 recall of Gray Davis and have long been the base support for Arnold Schwarzenegger. They are the real swing vote and should Team Whitman win in June and find a way to reach out to them, the still nascent Brown campaign could have some tough sledding come the fall of 2010.

Need more proof about Brown's trouble with independents (or, perhaps, Whitman's successes)? Only 32% told PPIC that experience in elected office is most important, while a whopping 50% favored experience "running a business."

But the scion of California politics has to first secure his base, and that's yet another story line that might be fueled by this poll. A full 41% of Democrats surveyed said they aren't satisfied with their choices -- er, choice -- in the June primary election. It's not the first time such a concern has been stated... but for now, there's no good measurement of what level of angst really exists among rank-and-file Dems. One final narrative you'd expect to continue, too: that Brown needs to engage with an actual campaign team, and soon.

Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

For Team Whitman (or is it eMeg?), tonight's poll is filled mostly with Christmas presents... and one possible piece of coal.

Though most voters say they still don't know enough about her, 32% of those planning to vote in the June GOP primary told PPIC they support Whitman, compared to 12% for Tom Campbell and 8% for Steve Poizner. Interestingly enough, more men (37%) favor her than women (26%), with more women still undecided.

An important footnote, though: PPIC didn't just survey Republicans on this, and says that their numbers include the 15% of independents who say they'll vote a GOP ballot.

The poll will no doubt buoy the Whitman camp after a week that's been dominated by news of the ugly court case involving her former life as CEO of eBay and the company's biz relationship with Craigslist. And it probably won't draw scowls from backers of Tom Campbell, who comes out second in the survey and has been beating back suggestions that he might not stay in the contest.

It's not great news for Poizner (though I expect a press release to the contrary at any moment), after the much reported news this week that he's pledging to spend $15 million more of his own dough on the race.

And it's that personal money that gets us back to the possible lump of coal in the PPIC stocking for Whitman, or even Poizner for that matter. The survey asked voters which they preferred: a candidate raising money from supporters to run for office, or spending their own money? 49% of likely voters said raise cash the old-fashioned way, while only 39% said spend your own.

The group least supportive of self-funding candidates? Independents, where only 29% approved of the practice. Maybe this is the silver lining from the poll for Jerry Brown in a potential showdown with a wealthy Republican? If so, it's only the smallest glint of shine.

UPDATE: While most political watchers would expect Brown to the odds-on favorite in a general gubernatorial race, don't count his political team in that category. Brown spokesman Steve Glazer called to say that they "expect the race to be very, very competitive." (Again, Brown is not yet a formal candidate). And on PPIC's finding of a lot of seemingly unsatisfied Democrats with their choice, Glazer had this to say: "It's not in the DNA of a voter to be satisfied."

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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