Brown grabs lead over Whitman in California, poll says

SAN FRANCISCO — Democrat Jerry Brown has broken open the dead-heat contest for California governor, leading Republican Meg Whitman by eight points going into the final two weeks of the campaign, a new poll shows.

Brown is leading after amassing robust backing from Latinos and eclipsing Whitman’s support in the crucial Central Valley, a new Public Policy Institute of California poll finds.

In the first major nonpartisan survey since a series of statewide televised debates and revelations of Whitman’s hiring and firing of an undocumented Mexican immigrant maid, Brown has 44 percent of likely voters to 36 percent for Whitman. Some16 percent are undecided and other candidates are drawing 4 percent, the poll showed.

That marks a significant shift in the race after months of being virtually tied. The last poll by the organization in September showed Whitman leading Brown 38 percent to 37 percent. The new poll of 2,002 adults was taken Oct. 10-17, a period that included the candidates’ third debate. The overall margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, said the poll might reflect some recent controversies, public events and strategic changes in the gubernatorial campaign.

“Brown began campaigning in earnest,” he said, “and there has certainly been a number of opportunities (in debates) for the voters to hear from the two candidates, to compare and contrast.”

In California, where Democrats have a 2.3 million-voter advantage over Republicans, Baldassare said it appears that “the core voters that have supported Democratic candidates seem to have coalesced around Brown,” including Latinos, liberals and women.

Among one key Democratic group — Latino voters — California Attorney General Brown has more than a 2-1 lead over Whitman, while 43 percent of likely voters believe he would be better on the issue of immigration, compared with 37 percent for the former eBay CEO, the poll found.

In a key development, Brown has drawn ahead of Whitman in the Central Valley, a Latino stronghold, erasing her 15-point lead there in September.

With voters casting ballots by mail and heading to the polls on Nov. 2, the latest poll underscores billionaire Whitman’s continued difficulties gaining traction in the race despite two years of campaigning and spending $141.5 million of her own money.

The poll also found that only 38 percent of likely Republican voters describe themselves as “satisfied” by their party’s candidate for governor, a 10-point drop since last month.

By contrast, 50 percent of Democrats said they are satisfied with Brown — and 11 percent of GOP voters say they will vote for Brown, compared with 7 percent of Democrats who say they will vote for Whitman, the poll showed.

“There have been two Meg Whitmans in this campaign,” said Larry Berman, professor of political science at UC Davis. “In the primary, she was so much more to the right, particularly on immigration. So a lot of Republicans are scratching their heads and wondering: ‘Where did she go?’ “

Baldassare added that while Whitman maintains strong support from Republicans, “the group that she needs to see movement among is the independents — and they are closely divided.”

Whitman’s 8-point lead over Brown among independent voters in September has been virtually erased. She now holds a 37 percent to 36 percent lead among independents — a key group that represents 1 in 5 California voters.

Among women voters, Brown has boosted his standing despite controversy after one of his campaign staffer’s used a sexist slur to describe Whitman in a private conversation that was inadvertently recorded on voice mail.

He leads Whitman among women voters by 47 to 32 percent, the poll found, up from September, when he had 35 percent of their vote. Among male voters and whites, the two candidates remain in a dead heat, the poll showed.

Brown leads Whitman in every geographic region of the state with the exception of Southern California outside of Los Angeles, the poll showed.

In the Bay Area, the poll found that Brown has boosted his support by five percentage points since September to lead Whitman by 55 percent to 29 percent. In Los Angeles, Brown has increased his lead by 19 points since September, holding a 54 percent to 28 percent lead there.

On issues, the poll showed Brown leads Whitman on the issue of education by 47 percent to 37 percent. On the environment, Brown leads by more than 2 to 1 — and leads in all regions and demographic groups over Whitman, who has said she would suspend the state’s landmark climate change law for a year if elected.

But California’s likely voters believe Whitman would do a better job than Brown on the state budget and taxes by 48 percent to 40 percent, and that she would do better on jobs and the economy by 47 percent to 39 percent, the poll showed.

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