The Voters That Might Sway Elections

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The latest statewide survey of voters offers some hard to pass up nuggets about two important subsets of the California electorate and how they might sway the state's biggest November contests -- those for governor and the United States Senate. And if that's true, then it adds even more intrigue to the next 11 weeks of the primary season and who comes out on top.

For those, though, who want the headlines from tonight's Public Policy Institute of California poll, then here they are: Meg Whitman leads Steve Poizner by 50 points in the GOP gubernatorial primary and leads Jerry Brown in a theoretical November race by five points; and Carly Fiorina appears to have closed the gap in the GOP race for the U.S. Senate, leading Tom Campbell by a single percentage point (Chuck DeVore's support remains unchanged) with both GOP front-runners deadlocked with 18-year Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer.

Now, on to our subplot.

In the Republican race for governor, current underdog Steve Poizner has embarked on a strategy that seems directly aimed at social conservatives in his party -- a get-tough stance on illegal immigration. Poizner, in comments several times over the last few weeks, maintains that the issue is centered on the state's budget crisis and, in response to a question I asked him at the GOP convention, said that he believes undocumented immigrants are costing the state $10 billion in services used.

But pushing the immigration issue comes with some potential risk, especially given the large number of people who believe the last GOP fight over illegal immigration, 1994's Proposition 187, drove a wedge between Latino voters in the state and the party, one that still exists today.

When asked about a potential fall contest between Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman, Latino voters surveyed favor Brown, 45%-35%. But when asked about a race between Brown and Steve Poizner, Latinos shift dramatically away from the GOP... this time picking Brown by a resounding 57%-19%.

That's not only a 13-point swing in Brown's favor, but also at least 16-point swing of Latinos away from the Republican party should Poizner pull an upset on June 8.

It's hard to imagine anything other than his tough talk on illegal immigration driving that result, especially given how prominent the issue has become in the race. It also seems plausible to ask -- again, should the incumbent insurance commissioner win the primary -- whether Poizner could steer his public image back towards the political center and ask Latino voters for a second chance in a fall contest.

Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

A less clear but still interesting result appears in PPIC's findings on the race for the U.S. Senate. When asked about hypothetical matchups between each of the three Republicans and the incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer, the feelings of another subgroup of voters are worth noting: independents, the single fastest growing group of voters in the state.

PPIC found that independents are the least happy group of voters about the choices they have in the Senate race, with almost four in ten saying that describes their mood. But when forced to choose, the results show Boxer's fate with swing voters improves the more conservative the GOP nominee seems to be.

In a Boxer-Campbell general election, independents queried by PPIC pick Campbell by 16-points, 48% to 32%. In a Boxer-Fiorina matchup, independents pick Fiorina 41%-35%... still not hot for the junior senator, but a 10-point upswing in her favor (and more indy voters also are undecided than with Campbell). However, should the November race be Boxer versus DeVore, this time the incumbent comes out on top, 41%-35%... a 22-point swing from how they feel about Campbell.

Are independents the single most important factor in the Senate race? Of course not... and neither are Latinos in the gubernatorial contest. And yes, another caveat, the poll only measures how voters feel now -- not how they're going to feel come election day in June or November.

But both subgroups of voters are important to understanding the narrative of the campaign, at least from a journalist's perspective. Latino voters offer a glimpse into the turbulent waters of race, class, and the changing face of California... waters that, as stated earlier, have been harder for Republicans to navigate in recent times. And with both major parties in weaker positions than they used to be, independent voters and their blend of pragmatism and ideology can wreak havoc on politicians perceived as unduly partisan.

It's shaping up to be an interesting election.

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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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