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A Preview of the California Governor’s Election

Mark Baldassare June 6, 2018
The state capitol building in Sacramento, California, shortly before sunset (stitched from multiple photos).

The people have spoken and the November election for governor has been decided: Democrat Gavin Newsom will face off against Republican John Cox. Let’s look at recent PPIC surveys to help us understand the determining factors of this outcome and the political dynamics that will surface in this fall’s matchup.

In the weeks before the June primary, the May PPIC survey found that Newsom was his party’s favorite in a race with the four major Democratic contenders, while Cox was his party’s top choice in a contest between the two major Republican contenders. The election results confirmed these trends in the voting patterns of red and blue counties. What is it about these candidates that was attractive to their bases?

The primary results were foreshadowed in a January PPIC survey. When likely voters were asked about the qualifications that they are looking for in a candidate for governor, most Democrats (84%) said they wanted a candidate with experience in office, while most Republicans (65%) preferred a candidate with experience running a business. The party faithful chose the person who arguably fit their profile best—Lieutenant Governor Newsom and businessman Cox. While California likely voters favor elected experience to business experience by a wide margin (62% to 31%), the fall election will focus on issues where opinions are more divided. This suggests a more competitive race than one might expect in deep blue California.

The November gubernatorial election is set in a midterm-election context perceived as a referendum on President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress. John Cox is endorsed by President Trump while Gavin Newsom is a vocal member of the Trump resistance. Democrats hope to flip several of the House seats held by California Republicans so that their party can take control of Congress. This election comes at a time when independents are now the second largest voter group at 4.9 million (SOS, June 1).

Slim majorities of California likely voters also say they would vote for the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate in their House district races in both the March PPIC survey (53% to 39%) and in the May PPIC survey (52% to 38%). Democrats strongly preferred the Democratic candidate (92% March, 91% May) and Republicans strongly favored the Republican candidate (87% March, 86% May) while, again, independents are divided (Democrats: 37% March, 43% May). The independents’ turnout and leanings will thus be a focal point in House races—another reason this voter group is the wildcard in November.

What else will Californians need to know about the two candidates? In the PPIC January survey, 60% of likely voters rank the candidates’ stands on the issues above several traits: experience (17%), character (16%), and political party (6%). Likely voters most often name the economy, immigration, and housing costs as their top issues in the May PPIC survey. Eighty-two percent of likely voters say that the candidates’ performances in public debates will be important in determining their vote for governor.

PPIC has invited the two gubernatorial candidates to participate in a public conversation with me about the issues, their leadership, and vision for California. Stay tuned for more information about when and where it will take place, and how you can attend or watch this special PPIC event.

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