"You can sort of feel the momentum on the ground," said a cheerful Meg Whitman to a group of women sitting outside a fast food joint in Sacramento late last week.
Tonight, it appears there may indeed be momentum in this race -- toward Jerry Brown.
A new statewide survey shows Brown leading Whitman among likely voters 44%-36%, with the Democrat opening a much larger lead among Latinos and in vote-rich Los Angeles.
PPIC finds Brown with a wide lead among some potentially important subgroups of voters, including Latinos (51%-22%), women (47%-32%), and Los Angeles voters (54%-28%). The poll also surprisingly finds him holding his own among independents (36%-37%) and voters in the Central Valley (42%-41%).
Whitman continues to lead Brown in non-LA parts of southern California (45%-28%) while breaking even (42%-41%) with white voters.
What seems most perplexing, and no doubt frustrating for the Whitman camp, is that voters told PPIC that while they think the economy is the single biggest issue on their minds (59% say it's tops)... and while they think Meg Whitman is the better candidate on jobs and the economy (47%-39%)... more are still picking Brown to be the next governor.
Why? Perhaps it's because they're skeptical of Whitman. "This is how they feel about the two candidates compared to each other," said Mark Baldassare, PPIC's president and pollster. "Maybe it's that they don't really see the clarity or the connection between what the candidates are saying and what can be done on the issues that are most important to the state."
While 55% of all likely voters in this poll said they are not satisfied with their choices in the race for governor (and 68% among independents), the problem is more noticeable among Republicans than Democrats.
58% of Republicans in this poll say they are unhappy with their gubernatorial choices -- presumably, unhappiness with Whitman -- while only 34% of those same GOP voters express displeasure with their choices in the race for the U.S. Senate. Keep in mind that the Republican candidate there, Carly Fiorina, has seemed to pivot much less to the center of the political spectrum than has Whitman since the June primary.
The poll numbers probably also bolster the Brown campaign's latest strategy in TV ads. One ad questions Whitman's character, while the other links to her to the decidedly unpopular incumbent.
PPIC's new poll finds Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's job approval rating bogged down at 29%; aligning Whitman in a word-for-word montage, Brown's team can only hope, will reinforce the current trajectory of the race.
It's important to make mention of PPIC's estimate on just who constitutes a likely voter, because both the Whitman and Brown camps have occasionally bashed the press for lavishing attention on polls that may not accurately reflect who's going to actually vote on November 2.
When looking at the entire 2,002 Californians surveyed by PPIC, the sample is 45% Democratic, 31% Republican, and 21% independent -- not too far off of official voter registration statistics. But the likely voters in this poll -- the key group -- is 44% Democratic, 35% Republican, and 19% independent. That's going to make this poll awfully hard for Team Whitman to dismiss, given it aligns almost exactly with not only PPIC's September poll, but also the September Field Poll that they lauded during another poll debate a few weeks ago.
The likely voter universe in PPIC's poll also breaks down along the following racial lines: 6% Asian, 7% Black, 15% Latino, 69% White, 3% Other. And it's 49% women and 51% men.
The bottom line: Brown has now opened up a noticeable lead, and the Whitman camp is left with less than two weeks to figure out whether they should focus more on building their candidate up or tearing Brown down.
NOTE: There's a lot more in the PPIC poll beyond the race for governor. Barbara Boxer leads Carly Fiorina 43%-38%; Proposition 19's quest to legalize pot slips below the majority threshold to 44%; Proposition 25's plan to make it easier to pass a state budget is largely where it was last month at 49%; Proposition 24 and Proposition 23 are both flailing. Click the link in the posting above for the full PPIC results.