News

Clinton's lead shrinks among California Democrats if Gore's in race, poll finds

Mary Anne Ostrom
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - California Democrats are happy with their presidential choices, but they are also enthusiastic about someone who is not running: Al Gore.

That's the finding of a new Field Poll released Tuesday. The former vice president and some-time California resident has not definitively ruled out a run.

The survey found that if Gore were in the race today, he would place second behind Sen. Hillary Clinton and ahead of Sen. Barack Obama among likely Democratic voters. The poll shows Gore 6 percentage points behind Clinton and 4 points ahead of Obama. When Gore is not included in the survey, Clinton has a 13 percentage point edge over Obama, 41 to 28 percent. Former vice presidential nominee John Edwards was the choice of 13 percent, followed by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at 4 percent.

Poll director Mark DiCamillo said the state's Democrats know the top contenders well and have highly favorable opinions of the three leading declared candidates - an unusual phenomenon for relatively early in the campaign cycle. And Gore, the non-candidate, is considerably more popular now among California Democrats than he was when he sought the presidency nearly eight years ago.

That, DiCamillo said, indicates a wide-open race "with a lot of jostling before we see who the candidate is," even if Gore does not join the field. The high favorability ratings of the top contenders suggest that "there is a pent-up demand to replace George W. Bush" among Democrats, he added, and voters in the party's primary would be happy with any of them.

Gore and Edwards get the highest marks for positive voter impressions, with 85 percent and 83 percent, respectively. Clinton gets a favorable rating of 76 percent by likely voters, with Obama following at 73 percent. The poll was taken after Edwards and his wife announced that her cancer had returned, but the Field survey did not ask voters to assess the announcement. DiCamillo said national polls suggest the candidate did not see his popularity change.

As for Gore, he would cut into Clinton's base the most, slicing her support by 10 percentage points. He would cost Obama 7 percentage points and Edwards 5 percentage points.

But Gore, who actually leads the pack among Bay Area Democrats, has not endured the same level of press scrutiny that the declared candidates have, and most of the recent media attention has been positive, revolving around his Oscar-winning movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." He also plans a worldwide concert series on July 7 highlighting global warming. In fact, DiCamillo said, Gore leaves a far better impression among voters now than he did when he was the leading presidential contender for the Democrats in late 1999.

Then, at the end of nearly eight years as vice president, he managed a favorability rating of 71 percent from California primary voters, compared to 85 percent now.

"Gore has reinvented himself as the candidate of global warming, and it's given people a new reason to support him," DiCamillo said.

DiCamillo attributes Gore's Bay Area popularity to the fact that he spends a lot of time in San Francisco, where his cable TV venture Current TV is located and he owns a condo. Also, he has ties to Google, where he is a paid adviser, and Apple, on whose board he sits.

Although a statewide poll last week indicated that Clinton benefited from a gender gap, with a higher percentage of women supporting her than men, the Field Poll did not show one.

Still, DiCamillo said his findings show that Clinton and Obama are appealing to different segments of the state's varied Democratic electorate.

In the survey without Gore, Clinton enjoys strong margins of support in Los Angeles County, where she get 51 percent of the vote, and among older voters, those who identify themselves as Latino and voters who did not go to college.

While 59 percent of Latino voters said they supported Clinton, compared to 18 percent for Obama, she gets a much smaller percentage of white, non-Hispanic voters. Her margin over Obama in the latter category is 34 percent to 30 percent.

The Field survey did not include enough likely African-American or Asian primary voters to draw conclusions about their voting preferences.

Obama and Edwards have their best showings in Northern California. Obama trails Clinton by just five percentage points in the Bay Area, 30 percent to 35 percent, compared to his 12 percentage point deficit statewide.

Obama does well among younger voters and those with college degrees. He nearly equals Clinton in support from college graduates and has a statistically insignificant lead among voters under 40.

"Even though Clinton has the early lead, the other candidates are very well-regarded and very well-known," suggesting voters have a high potential of moving to another candidate should their preferred one falter, DiCamillo said.

The Field Poll, based on a survey of 1,093 registered voters statewide, was conducted in English and Spanish between March 20 and 31, and has a 5 percentage-point margin of error.

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