California voters are giving President Joe Biden his highest ratings since mid-2021, but more Republican voters are breaking with former President Donald Trump and turning to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to a new Berkeley IGS Poll.
With the economy strong and inflation easing, nearly six in 10 registered voters approve Biden’s performance, the poll found. The president scored significant gains among groups where his support had earlier lagged — young people, men and even some conservatives.
On the Republican side, support is fragmented among nearly a dozen possible 2024 candidates, with DeSantis registering a 10-point gain since last August and Trump falling by nine points. DeSantis now leads the former president among GOP voters by 37% to 29%. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley trails at 7%.
The poll found that Biden would easily win a race with DeSantis or Trump — no surprise in a predominantly Democratic state where Biden defeated Trump in 2020 by a margin of nearly two-to-one.
Biden’s California rebound from his low ebb aligns with a national trend, said political scientist Eric Schickler, co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) at UC Berkeley. Trump’s decline and DeSantis’ rise in the state also fits a national pattern, he said — and one that underscores how GOP divisions appear to be deepening less than a year before the 2024 primary election campaign.
DeSantis has yet to formally declare a presidential campaign, “but, clearly, he has emerged as Trump’s strongest challenger,” Schickler said. “If it became a two-way race between the two of them, it could be a close, drawn-out battle — and it’s quite possible that DeSantis would win.”
The IGS Poll was administered online in English and Spanish in mid-February to more than 7,500 registered California voters. The margin of error is 2 percentage points.
Troubling signals for both Democrats and Republicans
While the results are positive for the Biden administration as it moves toward an expected re-election campaign, the poll also brought some troubling signals. Overall, 57% of voters — including 37% of Democrats and 60% of voters with no party preference — say Biden should not run again.
The president is 80 years old, and would be 86 at the end of a second term. “There’s certainly some concern about having a president that old,” Schickler said.
But California voters expressed little support for a presidential run by Vice President Kamala Harris, their former U.S. Senator. Even among Democrats, 41% said they would not be enthusiastic about her run, and that extended across demographic groups. Only among Black voters did a majority — 56% — say they’d be enthusiastic about a Harris campaign if Biden decides to step down.
“There’s not a clear, likely challenger to Biden who people would coalesce around,” Schickler said. While voters have some ambivalence about Biden’s age, “these poll numbers don’t suggest he’s in any danger if he were to run again.”
Among GOP voters, however, ambivalence and other forms of doubt may be reshaping the political landscape.
Just a few months ago, Trump’s renomination seemed close to a sure bet, but DeSantis’ jump since last August suggests that they may be “looking for a candidate who has a better chance to win,” Schickler explained. “There’s a sense that DeSantis is potentially a stronger candidate nationally, although I think there’s still uncertainty about that.”
Of course, with almost any Democratic nominee almost certain to win California, does the state even matter to Republicans? Political experts insist that the state does matter — a lot.
“Nearly 2.3 million Republican voters supported Trump in the state’s 2020 March primary — the most voters of any state in the nation,” said IGS Poll Director Mark DiCamillo. “California will send the largest bloc of delegates to the 2024 Republican National Convention — 159 delegates in all. That makes the state hugely important to any GOP presidential candidate hoping to win the nomination. This despite California’s deeply blue state reputation in national politics.”
And, Schickler added, the state is also a major source of political donations to conservative candidates.
Warning: Conventional wisdom is subject to change
Of course, with the first primary contests 11 months away and the presidential election more than 20 months away, today’s conventional wisdom is subject to change. Uncertainty is the only constant.
For example, consider the race to replace U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a towering figure in California politics for a half-century. Feinstein announced her retirement on Feb. 14, and while her decision was not a surprise, a separate IGS Poll released this week found no consensus among Democrats on who should replace her.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) has announced that she’s running, and so are two other members of Congress from Southern California, Adam Schiff and Katie Porter. Another Democrat, Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna, is seen as a likely candidate. But the poll found no front-runner among them.
Schiff was favored by 22%, followed closely by Porter at 20%. Lee polled at 6% and Khanna at 4%. But nearly half of the Democratic voters polled said they are undecided or prefer someone else.