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Calif.: Arnold's Incumbency Advantage

A new San Jose University Survey and Policy Research Institute poll on the California governor's race highlights the challenge for any politician seeking statewide office.

In head-to-head matchups between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and his two potential Democratic rivals -- state Controller Steve Westly and Treasurer Phil Angelides -- those voters saying they were "undecided/don't know" led the field. Thirty-five percent of respondents said they were undecided, compared to 30 percent who said they support Schwarzenegger and 25 percent who support Angelides. Thirty-eight percent said there were undecided when respondents were asked about a race between the Governator (28 percent) and Westly (24 percent). (Click here for a PDF of the poll.)

The ambivalence of California voters was even more noticeable when measuring where voters stand on the two Democratic primary candidates. Both Westly and Angelides, who have held statewide office for a combined 12 years, stood at 12 percent among survey respondents; 59 percent said they were undecided.

It's worth noting that most average voters in any state aren't particularly dialed into the 2006 elections at the moment. But California is the height of voter disinterest, especially on the state political level, according to Alan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant and the publisher of the indispensable California Target Book.

"People just don't know what is going on in state government because the news media just doesn't cover it," said Hoffenblum.  "[The media] covers the governor but [voters] don't know who there state controller is. They don't even know the difference between what the state controller and the state treasurer do."

Democratic media consultant Steve Murphy, a partner in Murphy Putnam Shorr & Partners, seconded Hoffenblum's assessment. "In the past the news media hasn't even covered the governor, except in the Sacramento market," said Murphy. "Now most TV stations have bureaus in the capital, but that's because of Arnold's star power."

Given California's massive size, if the news media doesn't cover something, then Californians aren't going to pay attention to it. So Westly and Angelides aren't likely to benefit from free media exposure that can benefit challengers in smaller states. 

"You'd better be talking about something [the voters] care about, and doing so in an incisive way, otherwise they're not going to hear you," said Murphy.

California has 33 million people (roughly half of whom are registered voters) and 14 different media markets -- two factors that make communicating a coherent statewide message a difficult if not impossible task, not to mention expensive.

"A candidate does not exist in California until he or she is on television," said Phil Trounstine, director of the San Jose State University Survey and Policy Research Institute.  That means Westly and Angelides will have to use the millions they have already raised to try to make sure California voters know their name.  And even that may not be enough to overcome Schwarzenegger's advantages.

And for other candidates running statewide for downballot offices -- candidates who lack huge campaign treasuries -- the challenge is overwhelming, according to Hoffenblum. "It almost becomes a lottery," he said.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 12, 2006; 6:10 PM ET
Categories:  Governors  
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Comments

There is another option. Democrats and progressives could vote for a real choice, Michael Strimling, running in the Democratic primary. He dares to propose real solutions and positions: for corporations to pay taxes at full market value under Prop 13, for universal health care and immediate requirements that huge employers like WalMart insure its workers, against capital punishment, against long sentences for nonviolent, petty and drug offenders. His website is www.MichaelStrimling.com

Posted by: Strimling2006 | March 22, 2006 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Whoever the Democratic nominee is will have plenty of time and money to get themselves out there. Arnold, as an incumbent should be polling much higher if he expects to win re-election.

Posted by: Q | January 21, 2006 7:56 PM | Report abuse

I'd take this with a grain of salt. Publicity isn't always a good thing; Californians seem pretty unhappy with their Gov. right now. I saw a Rasmussen poll that had Angelides at 37% and Schwarzenegger at 34%. If the mood in 06 is just anti-incumbent, it matters little who the challenger is, they'd still likely win.

Robin Williams: wow, I'd love a hilarious Governor who makes lots of sex jokes. Far better than Arnold's escapades revealed in that ?Oui magazine article from the 70s.

Posted by: Sandwich Repairman | January 13, 2006 11:42 PM | Report abuse

Sen. Feinstein and Boxer (although both would make excellent governors seem very happy to be Senators. Sen. Feinstein has been approached to be governor but she has turned down every request in the past. Living in California I can tell you that the campaign hasn't really started and right now it's just a getting to know you phase. For example, Phil Angelides is having a get-together in the San Fernando Valley this Saturday which I may attend. As I stated in my previous post, the Governor has problems with both sides and is very vulneralbe and State Treasurer Phil Angelides is a great candidate. You can check his website out at http://www.angelides.com if you like to judge for yourself.

Posted by: Jason | January 13, 2006 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Given the fact that Senators have a next to impossible task in running for President, I am surprised that neither one of California's senators have shown an interest in the Governor's race. Being an east-coaster, I may have just missed the answer. Any comments?

Posted by: MH | January 13, 2006 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Arnold may in fact beat any Democrat that is not a celibrity. The buzz is that Robin Willams might throw his hat in the ring, and if that happpens then Arnold will be taken down.

Posted by: PopulistDemocrat | January 12, 2006 11:58 PM | Report abuse

Correction to my prior post:

In my second reference to California State Treasurer Phil Angelides, I mistakenly referred to him as the Secretary of State. My bad!

Posted by: Jason | January 12, 2006 9:11 PM | Report abuse

Peter, your comment was very funny, lol!

But seriously, the race for California governor IS very important and interest will heat up as the election gets closer. I believe State Treasurer Phil Angelides will win the primary easily as he is really close to the base who tends to vote in the primary. The only chance Mr. Westly has is if he can unite the hi-tech Silicon Valley vote for his candidacy. Even then, it may not be enough. I think Sec. of State Phil Angelides will have a great chance of winning the general election if he is the nominee because the current governor has locked himself into a position that caters to only the centrists which tend to vote unpredictably and unreliably. Also, he advocates lots of borrowing which won't go down well with most anyone who is familiar with our past deficit problems.

Posted by: Jason | January 12, 2006 9:08 PM | Report abuse

Why are you getting bogged down in (unimportant) trivia like our (California) governor's race when there is an important election staring us in the face? WEST WING has to pick a replacement vice presidential candidate for the Dems within the next couple of weeks - I predict a woman to spark up the show. What's your fearless forcast?

Posted by: Peter L. | January 12, 2006 6:52 PM | Report abuse

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