Under California’s current election system, November 2 is when the state’s independent voters wield the most power – their votes decide the outcome of all statewide races. And, if recent polls hold true, independent voters have already decided.
Several statewide polls show Attorney General Jerry Brown leading former eBay CEO Meg Whitman by between eight and 13 points. Cited in all of the polls as reasons for his lead are a growing number of independent voters backing Brown, the Democratic candidate. The most dramatic jump was contained in a Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll released October 24 in which Brown’s support among independents soared to 37 points over Whitman, up from a 6 point spread in September. In September, Brown led Whitman among decline-to-state voters 47 percent to 41 percent. Now, according to the Times, he holds a 61 percent to 24 percent advantage.
“For whatever reason, Meg hasn’t captured their interest,” said Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University Sacramento. “People who were saying ‘I don’t know what to do I don’t like any of them’ have now made up their minds and the 5 percent who haven’t aren’t going to vote anyway.”
U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer also has posted a bigger lead over GOP rival Carly Fiorina – in large measure because of increased support among independent voters. In a Field Poll conducted from October 14 through October 26 and released October 29, Boxer holds a 49 percent to 41 percent lead over Fiorina. The two were tied in March. “Boxer’s current lead over Fiorina is derived from the fact that non-partisan voters are currently favoring Boxer 49 percent to 32 percent,” the poll says. Boxer leads Fiorina 50 percent to 42 percent in the Los Angeles Times poll. Echoing O’Connor’s assessment that independent voters are now starting to make up their minds, a Public Policy Institute of California poll interviewing likely voters between October 10 and October 17 showed Boxer and Fiorina even among independents – 36 percent to 37 percent with 18 percent undecided.
According to the Times, the 72-year-old former governor holds a 13-point lead over Republican Whitman among likely voters. Whitman’s campaign contends the poll is “skewed,” premised on a repeat of the high Democratic turnout of 2008 for President Barack Obama. Of California’s 17 million registered voters, 20.2 percent – 3.4 million -- are independents, voters who decline to state a party preference. Nearly 45 percent are Democrats and about 31 percent Republicans. Mathematically, both a Democratic or a Republican candidate needs some degree of support from independent voters to reach a plurality. Given the Democratic registration edge, a Republican candidate for statewide office needs a higher percentage of support from independents.
“For Whitman to win a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 14 points, she would have to carry the nonpartisan voters,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll in a September interview. “She probably needs to win by double digit margins from that segment for this to be a close race. If Brown is even he wins just because of the number of Democrats.”
Independents tend to be younger – 18 to 39 years of age. Roughly 60 percent are male, a higher percentage than the Republican Party. In a 2009 Public Policy Institute of California poll, 40 percent described themselves as moderate, 30 percent as liberal and 30 percent as conservative.
The poll also asks independents what party they lean towards. Leaning Democrat are 38 percent, Republican 30 percent and neither, 32 percent. “People who lean toward a party behave like partisans. They bounce around on one side of the aisle but they don’t cross over,” said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the institute focusing on politics and political reform.
The importance of independent voters is magnified when examining likely voters rather than simply registered voters. The gubernatorial Field Poll released October 28 predicts that just 5 percent more Democrats will vote November 2 than Republicans, a far narrower margin than the comfortable 14-point registration spread Democrats have over Republicans.
While most recent polls show Brown ahead among likely voters and independents, not all polls are as rosy as the Los Angeles Times. Brown holds a 10-point lead in the Field Poll and ann eight point lead in the Public Policy Institute’s poll. The same Public Policy Institute of California poll from earlier in the month that showed Boxer and Fiorina even among independents found Whitman and Brown in a dead heat among independents – 36 percent for Brown, 37 percent for Whitman with 19 percent undecided. That poll also found both candidates even among males with women favoring Brown by a 47 percent to 32 percent margin. The Field polls issued October 28 and October 29 show male voters breaking 46 percent to 42 percent for Brown and 47 percent to 44 percent for Boxer. Voters under the age of 39 – the bulk of independents -- favored Boxer by 48 percent to 39 percent and Brown 47 percent to 36 percent.
Nationally, however, the Association of American Retired Persons found that in the 2008 General Elections, about 69 percent of voters were 45 years of age or older – greater than the sum of voters in all remaining age groups, which was 57 percent. The percentage could be even higher this year without a galvanizing issue like President Obama appearing on the ballot.
While independents may be turning toward Brown, when asked in the public policy institute poll “would you say you are satisfied or not satisfied with your choices of candidates in the election for governor,” the highest degree of dissatisfaction – 68 percent – was voiced by independents. Democrats were evenly split and 58 percent of Republicans were dissatisfied.
Both Field Polls predict a record 55 percent of voters will cast ballots by mail – an increase of 14 percent from 2006. In an October 27 interview, DiCamillo said that 15 percent of those voters are decline-to-state. With more voters casting ballots by mail, “absentee ballots” are no longer as largely Republican as they previously were.
“As it becomes the dominant form of voting, it takes on the characteristics of the larger population,” DiCamillo said. “It’s not a 14 percent advantage for Democrats among mail voters but it is trending toward Democrats.”
Overall, of those voters surveyed, the Field Polls show 21 percent have already voted. Of those who had already voted, Boxer leads Fiorina 48 percent to 42 percent, and Brown leads Whitman 48 percent to 41 percent.
The Los Angeles Times and the Public Policy Institute polls examined the position of independents on other candidates and ballot measures.
Lieutenant Governor – Independents favor San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom over GOP Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado 45 percent to 33 percent. Among likely voters, the Los Angeles Times poll found Newsom leading by 42 percent to 37 percent.
Attorney General – Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and Democratic San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris are in a dead heat among independents. Cooley has a five-point lead – 40 percent to 35 percent among likely voters.
Proposition 19 – 49 percent of independents oppose this legalization of marijuana measure and 40 percent favor it. In the Public Policy Institute poll and others, the ballot measure’s support overall has fallen below 50 percent, usually an indicator of failure on Election Day.
Proposition 23 – 54 percent of independents oppose the suspension of AB 32, California’s landmark greenhouse gas emissions reduction law, one point higher than the percentage of Democrats who oppose the proposition, the Public Policy Institute found. The measure appears headed for defeat.
Proposition 24 – Nearly one-third of decline-to-state voters favor this measure to repeal several multi-billion dollar tax breaks for large corporations approved as part of the February 2009 budget compromise. Almost 30 percent of independents are undecided, the Public Policy Institute found, while 39 percent oppose the measure. Like Proposition 19, its support is below 50 percent suggesting it fails.
Proposition 25 – Nearly 50 percent of independents support this measure to make passage of the state budget a majority vote rather than a two- thirds one, according to the Public Policy Institute poll. The proposition appears headed for passage; 34 percent of independents oppose it.