More California Field Poll Results: A Different Kind of GOP Surprise

Friday, April 11, 2014

As chance would have it, I attended a mixer on Wednesday night to listen to Dan Schnur, a candidate for California Secretary of State.

Dan’s a former colleague – we both worked for Gov. Pete Wilson back in the 1990’s. Since then, he’s worked as a p.r. strategist, press secretary for John McCain’s first presidential campaign (the 2000 version – the one reporters romanticized), and he chaired California’s Fair Political Practices Commission – the state’s watchdog agency – during the final months of the Schwarzenegger Administration.

But his biggest selling point as a first-time candidate is his professorial career at USC and Cal-Berkeley – guiding fledgling political junkies into jobs in Sacramento, Washington and the campaign circuit. Combined with his FPPC tenure, it enables Schnur to deliver a good-government riff about the evils of political money, while trying to encourage young voters to engage in a process that tests their faith.

One other thing about Schnur’s candidacy: he’s running as an nonaffiliated candidate, wagering that he can draw enough support from both nonaligned voters – the fastest-growing segment of California’s electorate – and disaffected Democrats and Republicans to finish in the top-two in California’s June primary.

The latest Field Poll on the SoS race, released earlier this morning, was a cold splash of water for those who might have assumed the open primary would open the door to nonaffiliated candidates.

The results: Republican Pete Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute at the School of Public Policy, leads with 30% of likely voters, followed by Democratic State Sen. Alex Padilla at 17% (nearly half of which came after Field asked voters to choose a candidate other than disgraced State Sen. Leland Yee, who quit the race amidst a sensational scandal). As for Schnur, he sits at 4%, a point behind the Green Party candidate.

Something unusual could still occur in this race, which has six weeks to go – 41% of voters are still undecided about the race. But given both a low expected turnout and a larger number of Californians voting by mail (ballots being sent to voters as soon as the first week in May), it may end up a Republican-Democratic affair in November.

If this week’s Field results on the governor’s race were an earthquake – the more bombastic conservative Republican trouncing the moderate alternative – then this latest data dump is the aftershock, though a more pleasant one for Republicans:

For the following reasons:

1)  In theory, Padilla should lead the race. He has the most name recognition among the candidates, comes from the Los Angeles neighborhood of Panorama City in the voter-rich Southland, benefits from a Latino surname, has labor in his corner, tries his best to stay in the news, and benefitted from Yee’s stunning fall from grace (graft and gunrunning). That Padilla failed to poll above 20% speaks either to the low-profile nature of the race so far, or voters having set their clocks for a late wake-up call.

2)  Peterson, the Republican, nearly laps the field despite little name-recognition going into the race, an unaggressive media effort and little money in the bank.  If his support materializes on June 3, Peterson will have succeeded despite most every perceived handicap that California conventional political wisdom has to offer– no bucks, no celebrity or standing, no television time. With one exception: Peterson’s Republican designation on the ballot, meaning he’s a safe haven for a committed bloc of voters. As such, it offers insight into one of the unknowns of the open-primary era: given the choice to stray, will the GOP faithful stay home. If Peterson’s numbers hold up, it bodes well for California Republicans in terms of surviving the June semi-finals.

3)  Schnur, curiously enough, didn’t receive any bump from Yee’s departure – there was no groundswell of voters angered by Sacramento misbehavior (Padilla picked up 7%; Peterson, an extra 3%). He may also suffer from something beyond his control: ballot designation. As an nonaffiliated candidate, Schnur shows up on the ballot with the letters “NPP” after his name and title – “NPP” standing for “no party preference”. California’s state government has a knack for coming up with more words than necessary – nonaffiliated voters, for example, are “decline to state”. Should Schnur fail to be a factor in the June vote, maybe that designation junked up his message by baffling voters. Then again, he’s struggling with name recognition (70% of Field respondents had no opinion). Collectively, it raises questions as to a non-major party candidate’s chances of finishing in the top two in June – in this cycle, at least.


Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen