Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · October 2, 2019

California’s 2020 Democratic Primary Is a Three-Way Race, but Many Voters Would Consider a Different Candidate


SAN FRANCISCO, October 2, 2019—As California’s 2020 Democratic presidential primary draws closer, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders lead by a wide margin. However, many voters say they would consider supporting a candidate other than their current choice. These are among the key findings of a statewide survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Likely voters identifying as registered Democrats or as Democratic-leaning independents support Elizabeth Warren (23%), Joe Biden (22%), and Bernie Sanders (21%) at levels well above Kamala Harris (8%) and Pete Buttigieg (6%). No other candidate is preferred by more than 3 percent, and 9 percent say they don’t know which candidate they prefer. However, among voters with a candidate preference, more than half (53%) would consider supporting another candidate.

Many view the candidates’ performance in the primary debates as important in determining their preference. After five debates, an overwhelming majority of likely Democratic primary voters say debate performances are very (41%) or somewhat (43%) important.

“Many Democratic-leaning voters are open to switching allegiances at this early stage of the presidential primary season, and most see the debates as important for choosing a candidate,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.

Among all Californians, about one-third (30% adults, 35% likely voters) approve of the job President Trump is doing, with wide partisan divisions. The president’s approval ratings were similar in January 2019 and last September. Fewer than half approve of the job being done by US senators Dianne Feinstein (40% adults, 44% likely voters) and Kamala Harris (40% adults, 43% likely voters). Roughly half (49% adults, 51% likely voters) approve of their own representative in the US House, well above the share approving of Congress overall (33% adults, 24% likely voters).

“Californians give Congress lower approval ratings than their two senators and their House representative, while the president’s approval rating is remarkably stable as he faces a new controversy,” Baldassare said.

Homelessness and the Economy Viewed as Top Issues Facing the State

When asked to identify the most important issue facing the state today, Californians are most likely to name homelessness (15% adults, 16% likely voters) and jobs and the economy (15% adults, 13% likely voters). Other top issues named include housing costs and availability (11% adults, 11% likely voters), immigration and illegal immigration (9% adults, 11% likely voters), and the environment (8% adults, 10% likely voters).

“Homelessness and housing costs are now being mentioned as much as the economy and immigration when asking about the most important problems facing the people of California today,” Baldassare said.

The most important issue varies across regions. In Los Angeles, one in five residents (21%) identify homelessness, while one in five in the San Francisco Bay Area (22%) name housing. Pluralities in the Central Valley (19%), Inland Empire (14%), and Orange/San Diego (14%) identify jobs and the economy as the top issue.

Many Californians are concerned about the overall direction of the state. Fewer than half (46% adults, 41% likely voters) say the state is headed in the right direction, while 48 percent of adults and 54 percent of likely voters say it is headed in the wrong direction. In fact, the share of adults who are optimistic about the direction of the state is at its lowest point since May 2015.

Most View Immigrants as a Benefit to the State

An overwhelming majority of Californians (71%) see immigrants as a benefit to the state because of their hard work and job skills. At least six in ten have held this view since January 2013. Across regions, residents of Los Angeles (76%) are the most likely to view immigrants as a benefit (73% San Francisco Bay Area, 72% Orange/San Diego, 67% Central Valley, 67% Inland Empire). Older adults (59% 55 and older) are much less likely than younger adults (79% 18 to 34, 76% 35 to 54) to view immigrants as a benefit.

Half of Californians worry a lot (29%) or some (21%) that someone they know could be deported. Across regions, the level of concern is highest in the Inland Empire, with 41 percent saying they worry a lot (30% Los Angeles, 29% Central Valley, 26% Orange/San Diego, 26% San Francisco Bay Area).

Most Californians Oppose Restricting Abortion Rights and Access

Abortion rights as established by Roe v. Wade in 1973 could be considered in the US Supreme Court’s new term, which starts on October 7. Strong majorities of Californians (66% adults, 73% likely voters) do not want to see the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. According to a Gallup poll conducted in June, 60 percent of adults nationwide do not want Roe v. Wade overturned.

In California, strong majorities of Democrats (85%) and independents (69%) and a slim majority of Republicans (51%) do not want the ruling overturned. There is notable variation across racial/ethnic groups, with whites (76%) and African Americans (72%) most likely to oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, followed by Asian Americans (67%) and Latinos (55%).

Asked whether some states are going too far in either expanding or restricting abortion access, a majority of Californians (54% adults, 61% likely voters) say yes. Most Democrats (78%) and independents (58%), but only a quarter of Republicans (27%), hold this view. Majorities of African Americans (71%), Asian Americans (66%), and whites (57%) are concerned that some states are making it too difficult to get an abortion, while Latinos are divided: 45 percent are concerned that some states are making it too difficult, but 46 percent are concerned that some states are making it too easy.

“Strong majorities of Californians continue to support a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, and many express concerns about some states making it too difficult to have an abortion,” Baldassare said.

Disaster Threats, Gun Violence, Health Care Costs Raise Concerns

Californians face the threat of natural disasters such as wildfires, floods, and earthquakes. An overwhelming majority say they are either very (29%) or somewhat (54%) knowledgeable about preparing for a disaster. At the same time, a solid majority are either very (28%) or somewhat (32%) worried about damage, injury, or major household disruption from a natural disaster. This concern is more prevalent among lower-income Californians (annual household income under $40,000), with an overwhelming majority saying they are very (40%) or somewhat (30%) worried.

In the wake of several recent mass shootings, including one in Gilroy, California, 68 percent of Californians say laws covering the sale of guns should be more strict, while 10 percent say they should be less strict and 19 percent say they should be kept as they are now. Views were similar in October 2018 (64% more strict, 13% less strict, 21% kept as they are). About four in ten (38%) say they are very concerned about the threat of a mass shooting in their area, up from 28% in January 2016. Lower-income Californians are especially likely to be very concerned (48%) about this threat.

A strong majority of Californians say they are very (38%) or somewhat (32%) worried about being able to cover the cost of health care in the next few years, with at least two-thirds across regions expressing concern (66% Central Valley, 68% Orange/San Diego, 69% San Francisco Bay Area, 70% Inland Empire, 75% Los Angeles). The level of concern is particularly high among lower-income Californians: more than half (52%) say they are very worried about affording health care costs.

“Many lower-income Californians are worried about their ability to pay their health care costs and cope with disasters such as wildfires and earthquakes, as well as about mass shootings in their local areas,” Baldassare said.

School Bond Has Slim Margin of Support amid Economic Concern

A $15 billion bond for school and college construction that has been approved by the legislature for the March 2020 ballot—and is awaiting the governor’s signature—is favored by 66 percent of adults but only 54 percent of likely voters.

This narrow margin coincides with concern about the state’s economic outlook. Fewer than half (41% adults, 37% likely voters) expect good times financially in California during the next 12 months, while slightly larger shares (50% adults, 54% likely voters) expect bad times.

As the first year of the 2019–20 legislative session concludes, approval of state officials is mixed. Governor Newsom’s approval rating (44% adults, 43% likely voters) is identical to when he took office in January 2019, but disapproval (32% adults, 44% likely voters) is up from January. Asked about how the state legislature is handling its job, fewer than half approve (43% adults, 38% likely voters), while 40 percent of adults and 51 percent of likely voters disapprove.

“A $15 billion state bond measure for education funding on the March ballot starts with slim majority support as the state’s elected leaders and economic outlook are getting mixed reviews,” Baldassare said.

A potential November 2020 ballot measure that would amend Proposition 13 to tax commercial (but not residential) properties at their current market rate and direct some of the new revenue to K–12 public schools is supported by 57 percent of adults. However, fewer than half (47%) of likely voters favor the measure, and this share is down somewhat from April 2019 (54%). A potential state bond measure to fund water infrastructure is favored by 68 percent of adults and 57 percent of likely voters.

Confidence in Voting System Declines

Amid concerns about America’s voting system, how confident are Californians about the system in their state? Just over one-third have a great deal (18%) or quite a lot (18%) of confidence, down from October 2004 (26% great deal, 25% quite a lot). There are partisan differences in concerns about the system: Democrats (50%) and independents (43%) are more likely than Republicans (34%) to believe it is too hard for eligible people to vote, while Republicans (79%) are more likely than independents (53%) and Democrats (43%) to believe it is too easy for ineligible people to vote.

About the Survey

The Californians and Their Government survey is supported with funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the PPIC Donor Circle.

Findings in this report are based on a survey of 1,705 California adult residents, including 1,194 interviewed on cell phones and 511 interviewed on landline telephones. Interviews took place from September 16–25, 2019. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences.

The sampling error, taking design effects from weighting into consideration, is ±3.2 percent for all adults, ±3.7 percent for the 1,344 registered voters, ±4.2 percent for the 1,031 likely voters, and ±4.9 percent for the 692 respondents who answered question 9 (preference for Democratic nominee). For more information on methodology, see page 22.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has directed since 1998.

The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.