Despite Californians' generally favorable job reviews and good feelings about the future, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer appears headed for a tough reelection fight, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.
With a little over a year until the November 1998 contest, the incumbent Democrat easily tops a field of mostly unknown Republican rivals: state Treasurer Matt Fong, San Diego Mayor Susan Golding and businessman Darrell Issa.
But the failure to expand her support much beyond a core base of Democrats and the large number of Californians who remain unfamiliar with Boxer underscore her precarious position heading into the campaign. Boxer failed to muster more than 50% support against any candidate other than Issa, who is virtually unknown.
"These are not stellar numbers," said Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll, noting that the state is thriving economically and California voters are relatively content--factors that should strongly benefit the incumbent.
But Boxer "has not made much of a mark for herself in the U.S. Senate," Pinkus said, noting that 28% of respondents did not know enough about the state's junior senator after nearly five years in office to venture an opinion about her job performance.
"It's especially striking when you compare her with Dianne Feinstein," Pinkus added, referring to California's other Democratic U.S. senator and the state's most popular politician.
The Times Poll found that Feinstein has bounced back smartly from her bruising 1994 reelection battle and ranks as the clear front-runner in the governor's race she is now considering.
Among the GOP Senate hopefuls, none has gained much political traction at this early stage of the contest.
Under the so-called open primary system, in which voters can choose any candidate regardless of party, Boxer led all comers with 45% support. Fong finished first among the Republican candidates with 16%, followed by Golding with 9% and Issa with 6%.
Among Republican respondents alone, Fong led the field with 32%, compared to 15% for Golding and 9% support for Issa, a Vista car-alarm mogul making his first run for public office. Boxer had the support of 12% of the Republicans surveyed.
Currently unopposed for her party's nomination, Boxer garnered support from 71% of fellow Democrats and 48% of independents. Among the Democrats, 12% defected to GOP candidates and 17% were undecided.
In a series of hypothetical general election matchups, Boxer defeated all three of the GOP contestants.
The Democrat bested Fong 49% to 37%, Golding 48% to 34%, and Issa 51% to 31%.
In political polling, 50% is considered a crucial benchmark for an incumbent. The assumption is that voters who don't support a sitting lawmaker are thus inclined to opt for someone else.
"You have to have that base to build upon," said Pinkus, suggesting that Boxer's relatively weak showing against a field of relative unknowns signaled potential trouble.
The Times Poll interviewed 1,396 adults statewide, including 1,092 registered voters, from Oct. 4-7. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Overall, California voters have a fairly good impression of Boxer, who narrowly won election in 1992.
Fifty-three percent of the voters surveyed viewed the incumbent favorably, compared to 36% who viewed her unfavorably. The findings marked an improvement from a year ago, when only 37% of the voters viewed Boxer favorably and 32% viewed her unfavorably, evidently reflecting a generalized improvement in attitudes about the state's direction.
But Californians were not nearly as impressed with Boxer's job performance.
Forty-three percent rated Boxer favorably while 29% rated her unfavorably--a notable contrast with Feinstein's 54%-29% favorable rating.
Part of it may be Feinstein's more accomplished record. Said Pinkus: "With Feinstein, you've had the assault weapons ban, more agents along the border, desert protection legislation," while Boxer has cut less of a profile on both state and national issues.
Another apparent explanation for their varied levels of support is their different images.
Feinstein has always been perceived as the more moderate of California's two Democratic senators, and even manages to draw a fair amount of support from Republicans.
In contrast, while 60% of self-described liberals gave Boxer high marks for job performance, 48% of conservatives rated her poorly.
Similarly, whites only narrowly approved of Boxer's job performance, 38% to 35%, while blacks and Latinos--who tend to be more liberal--gave Boxer approval ratings of 56%-14% and 52%-14%, respectively.
In the Bay Area--her geographic base--the former Marin County congresswoman received a 53%-30% approval rating, compared to 39%-27% in the rest of Northern California.
On the bright side for Boxer, the poll suggests that roughly one-fifth of Republican women would defect to support the Democrat over any of the three GOP contestants.