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THE TIMES POLL : Support for Prop. 187 Erodes, but It Still Leads : Opposition to immigration measure is up sharply among many groups. Smoking measure now faltering.

October 27, 1994|PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Less than two weeks before Election Day, Proposition 187 has turned from a runaway into a horse race, with support for the sweeping ballot measure dropping to just above the 50% mark, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

The initiative--which would deny non-emergency health care, education and social services to illegal immigrants--is now favored 51% to 41% by likely voters. Among all registered voters, it is ahead 51% to 39%.

Those margins represent a marked decline from samples taken as recently as two weeks ago, when a Times poll showed Proposition 187 ahead 59% to 33% among likely voters and 61% to 32% among all registered voters.

"What seemed inevitable two weeks ago is inevitable no longer," Times Poll Director John Brennan said. "As people pay more attention to this thing, they seem to like it less and less.

"That doesn't necessarily mean it will lose, but it's definitely a significant drop."

The slide in support has occurred at a time when the get-tough initiative has emerged as the key issue in the November election and a central focus of the state's high-stakes gubernatorial and Senate races.

More than 1 in 3 voters--37%--say they are being drawn to the ballot box primarily because of Proposition 187. That is more than twice as many as those who cite the hard-fought gubernatorial contest between Republican incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown. And it is more than four times as many as those who say they are being motivated to vote by the Senate race between Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican challenger Rep. Mike Huffington.

The illegal immigrant measure is motivating about the same amount of supporters and opponents to go to the polls.

The Times poll, completed Tuesday night, is the first major statewide poll to suggest that the controversial measure--which would bar illegal immigrants from many public services and require education, health and law enforcement officials to report suspects to federal authorities--stands a chance of being defeated.

In explaining their positions, those favoring the initiative continued to cite as their main reason a desire to "do something" about illegal immigration by sending a message to government officials.

But those opposed say they are concerned that Proposition 187 would not work or is unfair. Nearly 1 in 4 opponents of Proposition 187 said they are against expelling hundreds of thousands of children from public schools, an action some say could lead to increases in crime. One in five of the voters who oppose the measure say it is poorly written or does not solve the state's illegal immigration problem. Fifteen percent called Proposition 187 "inhumane" and 14% termed it "racist."

In mid-September, the measure boasted support from virtually every demographic group in the state. But now it is widely opposed by Latino registered voters: 65% to 22%. Moreover, Democratic voters, who had favored the initiative just two weeks ago--52% to 40%--have also changed their minds. In the new poll, Democrats oppose Proposition 187 by a 53%-39% split.

The Times poll also picked up a major shift on Proposition 188, the tobacco industry-backed initiative to establish statewide regulations on smoking restrictions.

Two weeks ago, the measure was favored by a 49% to 43% margin among likely voters. In the new poll, Proposition 188 is opposed, 55% to 37%, among likely voters.

Just under half the registered voters polled said they are now aware that the major financial backers of the measure--which would repeal all local no-smoking laws and replace them with a milder statewide standard--are tobacco industry interests. Once aware of that support, 41% of registered voters say they are less likely to favor the measure and 5% say they are more likely to back it.

"When people know that the tobacco industry is behind it, they turn against it," Brennan said.

Proposition 186, which calls for a state-run health system, continues to fare poorly across California. Forty percent of likely voters said they were unfamiliar with the measure. Once it was explained, they opposed it by a 69%-23% margin--compared to a 64%-25% margin two weeks ago.

A fourth major issue, Proposition 184 or the "three strikes" crime initiative, remains well ahead among likely voters when it is explained, 57% to 32%. A sizable 38% remain unfamiliar with the measure.

The Times Poll conducted telephone interviews with 1,659 adults statewide, including 1,235 registered voters and 762 likely voters, from Saturday through Tuesday. The margin of sampling error for registered voters is 3 points in either direction; for likely voters it is 4 points in either direction. The margin of error for certain subgroups of voters may be somewhat higher.

Since the last Times poll, conducted Oct. 8 to 11, Proposition 187 has spawned a flurry of endorsements, ads and demonstrations.

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