"I certainly think it would not have been so close but for Proposition 187," said a White House official. "Feinstein was hurt by that. . . . I also think that, had Huffington not had the nanny problem, he probably would have won."
The Times exit survey of voters on Election Day indicated that Huffington was helped by his support for Proposition 187, but it was not a major factor. But political observers said that, like Gov. Pete Wilson, Huffington's campaign probably would have tried to capitalize on the initiative's popularity in the final weeks of the race had the candidate not been caught in the controversy about the illegal immigrant nanny.
The poll, supervised by Times Poll Director John Brennan, indicated several demographic factors that kept the race close.
Feinstein lost the race--by 6%--among white voters, who accounted for 81% of the electorate. She carried all of the state's major ethnic groups, including 80% of blacks and 67% of Latinos.
Women failed to turn out in greater numbers than men--as they do traditionally--despite the presence of two women candidates at the top of the ballot. The survey also found that self-described conservative voters turned out much more than self-described liberals.
Many of the voter opinions about the Senate candidates, however, were shaped by the heaviest barrage of TV commercials ever broadcast in a California political race. With few exceptions, both candidates used their television commercials to tell voters why they should not support their opponent.
As a result, The Times exit survey found 57% of Huffington's supporters saying they were voting for the "lesser of two evils." On the other hand, perhaps because she was better known before the race began, 61% of Feinstein's voters said they cast their ballot because they liked the candidate.
Regionally, Feinstein had a powerful showing in the north--particularly in the Bay Area, where she served for nine years as a mayor and county supervisor in San Francisco. Her score in San Francisco--64%--was almost the same as in her 1992 race.
In Los Angeles, she outpolled Huffington by about 11%, considered by some experts to be the minimum necessary for a Democrat to win statewide. Feinstein lost almost every other county in Southern California.
Huffington also failed to generate the margins he needed from major Republicans areas, although he was close. For example, only one Republican in the last 12 years has won a statewide race in California with less than 60% of the vote in GOP-rich Orange County. Huffington got 59%.
Huffington also failed to carry his home county of Santa Barbara, the only Southern California county besides Los Angeles to side with Feinstein. Huffington has been a controversial figure in his hometown since he upset a veteran congressman in 1992 and announced his bid for the Senate just a few months later.
Republican pollster Arnold Steinberg said Huffington "came to the table with a lot of baggage. I think he had the right message for this year but . . . was the wrong messenger."
Times staff writers Greg Krikorian and Richard C. Paddock and Times researcher Tracy Thomas contributed to this article.