Gavin Newsom has secured a commanding lead over his rivals in the race for California governor, but Republican businessman John Cox has moved into second place in recent months, according new statewide Public Policy Institute of California poll.
"As more people are paying attention, we have a number of Republicans and independents looking for something different in the race," said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. "They're saying John Cox is the person who maybe represents their views about limiting regulations and lower taxes. I think there's a market for those views in California."
Newsom, the state's lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor, is favored over all Democratic and Republican candidates by a double-digit margin, with 28 percent of likely voters indicating they'd vote for him in the June primary, up from 23 percent in February.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa fell behind over the same period, dropping to 12 percent from 21 percent. Cox's favorability doubled – climbing from 7 percent in February to 14 percent today, according to the poll.
Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach came in fourth at 10 percent, followed by Democrats John Chiang at 6 percent and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin at 5 percent. Roughly a quarter of likely voters – 24 percent – remain undecided.
Former Hillary Clinton aide Amanda Renteria, who has criticized Newsom for an affair more than a decade ago, was not included in the poll.
Among Democratic likely voters, the state's largest voting bloc, Newsom leads Villaraigosa 39 percent to 22 percent, while Chiang and Eastin were both at 9 percent. Among Republicans, Cox leads Allen 33 percent to 25 percent. The last Public Policy Institute poll had Newsom and Villaraigosa in a virtual tie.
Cox's improved numbers indicate he could emerge as a top-two candidate, with a potential November showdown between him and Newsom. Past polls weren't as positive for the Republican, Baldassare said.
"The race is closer now for who's going to be in second place – we didn't see that in either of our polls in December or January, when fewer people were paying attention," Baldassare said. "Before Newsom and Villaraigosa were the two favorites for the top-two primary, but now it's uncertain. With Cox having gained ground, he is basically in a tie with Villaraigosa, if you look at the margin of error."
As other candidates' polling numbers have fluctuated, Newsom's lead has remained steady. That suggests he has a strong chance of making the runoff and potentially, winning the governor's race against a Republican.
Democrats represent the largest voting bloc in California, and they are more motivated than Republicans this year to vote, according to the poll.
"Even with a low turnout election, there are going to be many more Democrats than Republicans voting," Baldassare said. "These circumstances favor Democrats in statewide races, just in sheer registration."
With the June primary less than three months away, interest in the race has surged, nearly doubling since December. Likely voters are also more closely paying attention to news coverage about the candidates, and 59 percent of Democratic voters said it's important to vote this year's midterms, compared to 42 percent of Republicans, according to the survey.
In the gubernatorial primary, likely voters are most concerned about immigration or illegal immigration, followed by guns and gun control, education, jobs and the economy.
Immigration could be a pivotal issue, with President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions taking aim at California's so-called "sanctuary state" law and heightened fear in communities across the state about deportations of undocumented immigrants.
Among respondents who said they're concerned about immigration, 25 percent voiced support for Cox, while 17 said they support Newsom, followed by 15 percent for Allen and 13 percent for Villaraigosa.
The poll also found:
- Latino voters are more likely to support Villaraigosa over Newsom, while white voters are more likely to support Newsom.
- U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 84, is well ahead of state Sen. Kevin de León as she seeks her fifth full term in Congress. She is leading the former Senate leader 42 percent to his 16 percent.
- If the election were today, a majority of likely voters – 53 percent – say they would vote for or lean toward the Democratic candidate.
- Half of Californians approve of Gov. Jerry Brown's job performance, while just 30 percent of Californians approve of Trump's job performance.
- A narrow majority of voters favor construction of the state's high-speed rail system (53 percent are for it compared to 43 percent against it).
- Two-thirds of likely voters voiced support for the state's $3 billion affordable housing bond, which will go before voters in November.