Take Me Out To The “Bull” Game

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

With spring training done, the major league baseball season is finally underway. But don’t expect most Californians to dive into the state’s June 5 Primary election quite so fast or furiously. President Donald Trump and our national political melodrama are sucking all the oxygen from our civic environment.  With no crisis at hand, state politics are very much on the back burner.

Even though candidates and activists are busy in the trenches—raising money, seeking endorsements, wooing constituencies and vying for positioning on key issues, we really won’t know a lot about who is winning and losing until voters start to pay attention.  A case in point is the race to succeed Jerry Brown as California’s next governor.

A recent PPIC survey shows Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom leading the pack, but with support from 28% of likely voters—with a significant 24% undecided.  Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Republican businessman John Cox, and GOP Assemblyman Travis Allen bunched double digits behind him.  The trouble with early polls is that they really don’t mean much until voters are really engaged.

While Newsom appears to have an early advantage based on name recognition and support from his Bay Area base, the depth of his support is questionable, as is his potential to expand it to include a majority of voters by November.  With his name recognition, ballot title and fund-raising lead, the Lieutenant Governor seems likely to make the November 6th run-off, but once the race is down to two contenders, it is a whole new ball game.

Factors like name recognition, ballot title, past media exposure and wording of survey questions play an out-sized role in determining the results of early polls, at a time when most of the electorate doesn’t really care much about the race. The closer Election Day gets and the higher up the ballot the race is, the less powerful these factors become. Money, media and message take over.

For now, Newsom is pursuing a “Rose Garden” strategy, limiting his exposure and letting the other candidates duke it out.  He skipped the recent NBC4-USC debate—opting instead to attend a fund-raiser in Pasadena—and prompted barbs from the other candidates, particularly Villaraigosa and Chiang, for doing so.

Newsom has indicated he is going to sit out future debates until May.  This could be a smart strategy.  Multi-candidate debates present contenders more opportunities to get themselves into trouble than to shine.  There’s a risk in showing up—particularly for strong front-runners. Further, the debate format is not conducive to Newsom’s skill set. He seems happier and more comfortable speechifying in front of a friendly crowd.

The ideal scenario for Newsom is for Villaraigosa, State Treasurer John Chiang and two under-funded and relatively unknown women—former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin and former Hillary Clinton campaign aide Amanda Renteria–`to splinter the Democratic vote and allow either Cox or Allen to sneak into second place.  Remember, the run off is between the top two June vote-getters regardless of party affiliation.   California is deeper blue than ever before and, barring a political cataclysm, the chances of any Democrat losing to a Republican in this year’s governor’s race is miniscule.

At this point, the onus is on Villaraigosa to break out of the pack and capitalize on strong Latino backing, his record as Mayor of Los Angeles and his track record as a compelling candidate.  Chiang has the resume and few negatives but hasn’t yet been able to distinguish himself from the rest of the field.  Eastin is feisty in the debates but is long out of office and doesn’t appear to have the ability to raise serious money to fuel her campaign.

California is in good fiscal shape; the economy is humming. and people appear more worried about the firestorms in Washington, D.C. than anything on the state scene.  Let’s face it, most Californians are satisfied with Jerry Brown and ok with the state legislature.

Don’t expect the electorate to start thinking about choosing Brown’s successor until the election is upon them. Just as in baseball, the real action doesn’t come until the home stretch, when the contenders vie for a play-off berth.

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