Politics & society, Research

Key takeaways from California’s primary election

IGS director Mark DiCamillo examines the races for governor, senate, congress and mayor of San Francisco

Gavin Newsom, John Cox

Californians will choose between Democrat Gavin Newsom, left, and Republican John Cox to be the state’s next governor. (Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Californians voting in this week’s primary election weighed in on state propositions, cast votes for local leaders and determined who would appear on the November general election ballot.

To help us make sense of key races up and down the state, Berkeley News spoke with Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley IGS Poll, part of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. He’s been examining the pre-election polling data for more than a year.

Berkeley News: In November, Californians will replace Governor Jerry Brown with either Gavin Newsom, a Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco, or John Cox, a Republican businessman from San Diego. How did we get here?

Mark DiCamillo: Newsom had been ahead in the polls leading up to the primary, and Tuesday night bore that out. Cox also had been doing well in preliminary polling and received a significant bump after receiving an endorsement from President Trump in the middle of May.

After that, our poll found a significant swing among GOP voters toward Cox and away from Travis Allen, his leading Republican challenger. Cox led Allen by only 9 points among Republicans in our April poll prior to Trump’s endorsement of Cox, but his lead increased to 21 points after Trump’s endorsement. This, in my opinion, vaulted Cox into a strong second-place position behind Newsom on Election Day.

Then is it fair to say that President Trump is factor in the governor’s race?

The president’s endorsement became the central message that pushed Cox forward in the primary field among Republicans in the final leading up to the primary, and I expect that it will continue that way going forward in the general election. However, given the unpopularity of the president in California among Democrats and non-partisans — who represent three-quarters of the electorate — Newsom will be the heavy favorite to win the November gubernatorial election.

It appears as though Kevin de Leon is going to hold onto the second-place spot in the Senate primary, trailing incumbent Dianne Feinstein, who ran away with first. What do you anticipate this race looking like since both candidates are Democrats?

Overcoming Feinstein from the left is going to be difficult for Kevin de Leon. He was only able to pull in 11 percent of the vote in primary. That was identical to the level found in our final pre-election Berkeley IGS Poll. That poll found de Leon getting only 1 percent support from Republican voters and just 7 percent from non-partisans. In addition, among Democrats Feinstein was preferred over de Leon three to one. This indicates to me that de Leon is going to have a tough time expanding his base of supporters moving forward to the general election.

Mark DiCamillo

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley IGS Poll.

In our polling last year, a significant proportion of voters didn’t know much about de Leon.  So many voters polled, especially Republicans, who didn’t like Feinstein, initially said they preferred de Leon to Feinstein. However, as primary voters became more aware of de Leon and his very progressive positions on the issues, support for him fell, with hardly any Republicans voting for him in the primary.

The same dynamic can be expected during the general election campaign. Voters who are unfamiliar with de Leon in the early going will largely be basing their preferences in the Senate race on how they feel about Feinstein. However, as Republican voters get more knowledgeable about de Leon, their initial support will likely fade, and in the end they’ll either choose Feinstein or opt out of voting at all in the Senate election. Because of this, I expect Feinstein’s lead over de Leon to expand during the general election campaign.

Democrats targeted seven congressional districts won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election that are currently held by Republicans. The races drew a multitude of Democratic challengers, raising concern that the Democrats would split the vote and fail to make the November ballot. How did this play out?

It looks as though the Democrats narrowly escaped that situation. In those seven districts, the returns aren’t all final yet but show a candidate from each made the top two, which means that there will be no guaranteed victory for either party in any of those seven races. However, it should be remembered that in some of these districts, especially the 10th and 48th congressional districts, the second-place Democratic candidate is only narrowly ahead of a third-place Republican. Because there are still many votes still to be counted in these district races, it is still possible that the outcome in these contests could change.

The San Francisco mayor’s race is unique and very close. Can you walk us through how the use of ranked-choice election format is impacting the race between London Breed and Mark Leno?

Right now, things are really too close to definitively name a winner. The latest estimates show that there are still about 80,000 votes left to be counted in San Francisco, so the outcome will hinge on how these break between the two candidates.

However, the election outcome is complicated further by the ranked-choice voting method used in San Francisco to elect a mayor. To win a ranked-choice election, a candidate needs 50 percent of the vote plus one. On the ballot, voters list their candidates in order of preference. The candidate receiving the fewest votes after the first round of counting is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed to the voter’s second preference. This process continues until a candidate breaks through that 50-percent-plus-one threshold.

How is that playing out?

Well, it appears that Leno and [Supervisor Jane] Kim’s strategy of asking their supporters to choose them as their first choice and choosing the other as a second preference seemed to have worked. The early returns are showing that voters for Kim listed Leno as their second-choice candidate about three-quarters of the time, and with the help of Kim’s voters, Leno was able to close the initial 10-point lead that London Breed had in the first-choice balloting. At the moment, the margin between the Leno and Breed is so narrow and there are so many votes yet to be counted, it will likely take weeks before we know who the winner will be.