Sen. Dianne Feinstein, unaccustomed to being on the wrong end of a bum deal, has been getting one at the hands of some California political observers.
She and her supporters are fully capable of setting the record straight, and will, now that she has announced she is running for another term in 2018. But leaving aside President Donald Trump’s eccentricities, the most discussed subject among California political types was, until Monday, whether she would seek re-election next year, and what her chances of victory are.
Feinstein will have work to do, especially with voters under 30. But any pollster or pundit who thinks she is road kill is not studying the polls and definitely not learning from history.
Last month, before Feinstein unveiled her plans, news stories implied that her re-election prospects are in serious jeopardy. The stories were based on a UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies poll released on Sept. 14, and a Public Policy Institute of California survey two weeks later.
The Berkeley poll found that 50 percent of all registered voters approve of the job Feinstein is doing, and 52 percent approve of Sen. Kamala Harris’ performance. “Feinstein is being upstaged by this young upstart,” asserted Mark DiCamillo, formerly of the legendary Field Poll and now the director of the UC Berkeley Institute.
The poll found that 45 percent of California voters were inclined to support Feinstein if she were to run for a fifth term, while 41 percent were not. The topline of the PPIC poll also suggested voters were unenthusiastic.
But the “upstaged” claim struck me as odd. Knowing that overall numbers are of little value, I decided to scrutinize the poll findings, and to rummage around my garage for results of old polls I helped oversee when I ran Sen. Alan Cranston’s difficult re-election campaign in 1986.
I realize Cranston’s final campaign is ancient history for many Californians. But once you do something long enough, you learn that history is worth studying. Sure enough, the suggestion that Dianne Feinstein is somehow on a slippery slope to political doom was irresponsibly misleading.
In 1986, long before the top-two primary and back when Republicans actually mattered in California politics, Cranston was running for a then unprecedented fourth term. He was 72. A runner committed to a healthy diet and not known as a slave to fashion, he looked older. Insiders viewed him as highly vulnerable.
In November 1985, 12 months before the election, our internal polling showed 41 percent of likely voters supported Cranston’s re-election and 42 percent said they would rather vote for someone else.
But other numbers were more relevant. Democrats supported his candidacy by a 57-26 percent margin. Republicans, understandably, were less enamored, with 58 percent believing he should hang it up.
Cranston from the start made it crystal clear that he was seeking re-election, and ran a smart, tough campaign against Ed Zschau, an attractive Republican candidate from the Silicon Valley. He wound up winning by just over 100,000 votes.
Thirty years later, Feinstein and her campaign team see similar poll numbers. The PPIC data show 57 percent of likely Democratic voters support her running again, 69 percent of Republicans saying she should not. The notion that Feinstein is in some unprecedented free-fall is a misreading of the polling results.
Returning to the headline-making Berkeley poll findings that 50 percent of all registered voters approve of the job Feinstein is doing, and 52 percent approve of Harris’ performance, those numbers need to be explained.
Not to date myself further, but pitting Harris against Feinstein is, to quote the television prosecutor in Perry Mason, incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial. Our two senators are not now, nor will they ever be, in a campaign against each other. Adding to the absurdity of the comparison, the poll had a four-point margin of error, so 50 and 52 percent are statistically the same.
The study also found that the negative job rating for Harris was 29 percent, and 36 percent for Feinstein, which some people might have seen as implying Feinstein is in trouble.
But a 29 percent negative job approval for Harris, who took office eight months ago, suggests only that Harris hasn’t had the opportunity to make a lot of enemies yet. Feinstein, by comparison, has been casting votes for 25 years.
In August 1985, more than a year before the 1986 election, the Field Poll had Cranston’s job rating at 46 percent excellent/good and 46 percent fair/poor/very poor. Feinstein’s overall job favorability rating with likely voters is strong; the PPIC poll found 54 percent of registered voters view her favorably.
Feinstein and I have our history. I managed her first statewide outing for governor in 1990, after San Francisco strategist Clint Reilly fired her and before strategist Bill Carrick began his long and successful working relationship with her. Since then, the senator and I have not been on each other’s holiday greeting-cards list.
But for 25 years, Feinstein has been a strong and often exemplary voice for California. Perhaps she should have stepped aside and let younger aspirants with a fresh view of things have their day on the campaign stage. Perhaps California is best served by one promising senator who is new to the game and one who has plenty of seniority, a valuable currency in Washington, and an intimate knowledge of the way things work.
But no matter your view on that point, we in politics should be honest with voters.
Now that she has declared her intention, Feinstein will have work to do, especially with voters under 30, the oldest of whom were watching “Sesame Street,” not “Meet the Press,” when she was first elected to the Senate. But any pollster or pundit who thinks she is roadkill is not studying the polls and definitely not learning from history.
That goes for any would-be challenger, too.
Darry Sragow is a Democratic strategist, attorney and publisher of the California Target Book, firstname.lastname@example.org.