We haven’t had a 2020 California election yet, but already there is a poll testing potential matchups in the 2022 governor’s race! 

A poll this early has little relevance and must come with the disclaimer that two years is a lifetime in politics. So much can change. Heck, maybe Gavin Newsom won’t be governor in 2022 if a brokered Democratic Convention in July turns to him as the presidential nominee. 

But the polling by the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute is more a marker on the state’s party politics, which have changed dramatically over the past decade.

The poll asked two questions about the governor’s race, one focusing on a traditional Republican-Democratic contest and the second pitting the incumbent against a No Party Preference Candidate.

The first matchup was between the incumbent Democrat and a respected Republican challenger—San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

The first thing to consider is that Faulconer will be out of the mayor’s office when the next gubernatorial election occurs. Also, while Faulconer is popular in his home city, he is generally not known among California voters as a whole. That situation would change if he chooses to run, is nominated by the Republicans, and has a decently funded campaign to back him up.

In the USC poll, respondents supported Gavin Newsom over Kevin Faulconer, 55.7% to 30.1%. 

Given that not much is known about the San Diego mayor statewide, it’s likely the vote broke down according to political party. In the same USC poll, President Donald Trump’s chances in California was tested against five leading Democratic opponents. Trump’s support was almost identical in each case, parked around the 30-31% mark, roughly the same total Faulconer received from respondents when tested against Newsom.

Is the Faulconer response in the poll really a measure of Californians’ feeling toward Trump? Is the Republican base simply set at 30%?

Faulconer does have an opportunity to separate from Newsom in the public’s estimation on the major issue of the day—homelessness.

Newsom has taken on the homeless issue, dedicating nearly his entire State of the State speech to the subject. Faulconer, in the meantime, is moving ahead with a proposed ballot measure designed to solve the homelessness issue. If Newsom’s efforts are in vain, and Faulconer qualifies his initiative for the 2022 ballot, that distinction may play well in the governor’s contest. Lots of ifs and maybes there.

The second test in the USC poll was between Newsom and newly declared No Party Preference Assemblyman Chad Mayes. You know Mayes’ history. One-time Republican leader who sided with Democratic leaders to pass cap-and-trade legislation. He lost his leadership post, and then after complaining about the direction of the party and voicing concerns about President Trump, he chose to change his registration to No Party Preference.

Conspiracy theorists might see that Mayes was chosen as a potential challenger for this particular poll question because he teamed with former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (godfather, of course, of the Schwarzenegger Institute) to form New Way California to reshape the state Republican Party.

Before even thinking about a statewide office in 2022, Mayes will have to survive holding his assembly seat. When Mayes re-registered as a No Party Preference candidate, the Republican Party immediately got behind a challenger to Mayes in the primary. A concentrated effort by conservative Republicans has emerged to support San Jacinto Mayor Andrew Kotyuk while at the same time punishing Mayes for leaving the party.

In the USC poll matchup, Gov. Newsom received 48%, Assemblyman Mayes 23.4%. A larger group of respondents, at 28.6%, did not know how they would vote. Another test of party strength? Newsom dropped because voters might consider another candidate, but few voters know Mayes. If fact, Mayes’ vote may also reflect Republicans and/or an anyone-but-Newsom section of the electorate. More, likely it mirrors the shifting attitude and the effectiveness of political parties in the state.

Steve Poizner, one-time Republican California Insurance Commissioner, ran a credible race in 2018 as an independent in attempting to regain his seat, However, he fell almost 6% behind the winner, Democrat Ricardo Lara.

Californians are registering in larger numbers as No Party Preference voters but candidates running under that label are yet to show political muscle.

What’s this early gubernatorial poll tell us? Not much, except that Democrats are clearly in control when it comes to reflexive reactions from voters. But the nature of politics provides that situations can change.