California poll reveals how third-party candidates could throw 2024 presidential race to Trump

David Lauter, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

In 2020, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in California by more than 29 points, amassing a statewide margin of more than 5 million votes — the largest in the history of presidential elections.

Three years in office have not been kind to Biden.

Biden will win Tuesday's primary — he has no serious opposition. And barring a sudden turn for the worse in his health, he's not at risk of losing deeply Democratic California in November.

But he'll be lucky to achieve half the margin he ran up last time around, according to the latest Los Angeles Times statewide poll with UC Berkeley's Institute of Government Studies.

The poll of voters in California, the nation's largest Democratic stronghold, highlights the problems the president faces nationwide as he seeks another four years in the White House.

Third-party candidates hurt Biden

One problem is the potential impact of minor-party and independent candidates.

The Berkeley IGS poll shows Biden leading Trump by 18 points statewide in a head-to-head matchup. But that drops to 12 points when independent and minor-party candidates are included.

In swing states, where Biden doesn't have a big Democratic cushion to protect him, the impact of those independent and minor-party candidates could be enough to swing the outcome.

Of the three independent and third-party candidates the poll tested, the Green Party's Jill Stein and Cornel West, who is running as an independent, draw support away from Biden, the poll found. When the poll asked voters their second choice, most West and Stein backers said Biden.

Neither has much support — 2% and 3%, respectively — but if that were mirrored in closely divided states, it could be enough to matter. In 2016, Stein's vote was larger than Trump's margin in three swing states, causing Democrats to charge that she cost Hillary Clinton the election. How many of Stein's voters might have voted for Clinton that year is unknown, but the risk of third-party candidates drawing support away from Biden has haunted Democrats.

A third independent candidate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., had 11% support in the poll, but his voters were almost evenly split between Trump and Biden as their second choice.

Those candidates, especially West and Stein, may have more impact in California than elsewhere in the country because of the state's liberal electorate, noted Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Berkeley IGS poll.

The impact of those candidates could fade by November — that typically happens. They may not even make the ballot in some swing states. Each state sets its own rules for ballot access — some, including California, are easy, others are very difficult, and the deadline remains months away.

But the large number of voters who currently say they would vote for a third-party candidate is a "measure of the disaffection" with Biden, DiCamillo said.

Latino and young voters dismayed

Another central problem for Biden is the alienation of some key Democratic constituencies.

Just after he was inaugurated, almost two-thirds of California voters had a favorable view of Biden. Today, fewer than half, 45%, still do, the poll found.

Among Democrats, 26% now have an unfavorable view of the president, up from just 7% when he took office.

That drop isn't only — or even primarily — coming from voters on the left angered by Biden's support of Israel in the current Gaza war. Biden's support has dropped 24 points among voters who identify themselves as moderates, 15 points among those who call themselves somewhat liberal and 16 points among the strongly liberal.

Especially concerning to Democratic strategists, the percentage holding a favorable view of Biden has dropped 30 points over the past three years among voters younger than 30 and 20 points among Latino voters, only 43% of whom now see him favorably.


"The younger voters are a key segment in this election," said DiCamillo. A 30-point decline "is huge," DiCamillo said and underscores the concern among Democrats that many younger voters "may just decide not to vote."

Even if that wouldn't cause Biden to lose the state, Democrats further down the ballot fear that a lower turnout could lead to Democratic losses in closely fought swing congressional districts. California has at least four districts that both parties consider tossups, enough to potentially determine which party controls the House next year.

To the extent that the poll has good news for Biden it's this: His standing with voters may have bottomed out. After rising consistently in polls over the last three years, the share who see him unfavorably, 49%, hasn't changed from the last Los Angeles Times-Berkeley IGS poll in early January.

Moreover, in a reelection match against Trump, who is also very unpopular, Biden can still win voters who have an unfavorable view of him. Of the voters who back Biden in a head-to-head matchup with Trump, about 1 in 6 view the president unfavorably. About two-thirds of those who said they remained undecided also disapprove of Biden.

But getting votes from people who have a negative view is definitely doing things the hard way. Boosting the number of voters who see the president favorably remains job No. 1 for his reelection campaign.

Trump dominates the GOP

Despite Nikki Haley's best efforts to inject suspense into the Republican primaries, the outcome isn't really in doubt. Trump's dominance of the GOP wobbled briefly after the Republicans' poor showing in the 2022 midterm elections, but he surged back into control in 2023.

Among likely Republican primary voters in California, 75% now say they plan to vote for Trump, compared to just 15% for Haley, the poll found. Trump's support is up from 66% in early January and 57% in October.

In the early voting states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, Haley got a lot of her support from independent voters. But they can't participate in California's Republican primary. With only registered Republicans eligible to vote, Trump dominates all major demographic groups in the California primary.

The only significant group among whom Haley currently leads is the small share of Republicans who plan to vote for Biden in the fall, the poll found.

Key group: Double disapprovers

With both Trump and Biden unpopular, key voters to watch are those who take a dim view of both.

In California and nationwide, that's close to 1 in 5 voters.

In 2016, the "double disapprover" group was similarly large and broke decisively in favor of Trump over Clinton. Double disapprovers were much less of a factor in 2020 because Biden was relatively popular.

So far in this election cycle, voters nationwide who dislike both candidates have fluctuated a lot in their preferences, according to an analysis of national polls by Charles Franklin at Wisconsin's Marquette University.

Marquette's numbers show that 37% of voters nationwide land solidly on Biden's side, with a favorable view of the president and an unfavorable view of Trump. On the other side, 42% have a favorable view of Trump and an unfavorable view of Biden.

In California, with its heavily Democratic electorate, 43% have a favorable view of Biden and an unfavorable view of Trump; 29% view Trump favorably and Biden unfavorably, the Berkeley IGS poll finds.

Almost no one likes both candidates, either nationally or in California, and a majority of voters consistently say they'd rather not face this rematch. But barring accident or illness that could befall either of the two elderly candidates, the rematch is what the country faces. Currently, Trump holds the edge. Biden can regain it, but as the California numbers show, he has a hill to climb.

The Berkeley IGS poll was conducted online in English and Spanish Feb. 22-27, among 6,536 California registered voters, including 1,053 Republicans likely to vote in the GOP presidential primary.

The results were weighted to match census and voter registration benchmarks, so estimates of the margin of error may be imprecise; however, the results for the full registered voter sample have an estimated margin of error of 1.5 percentage points in either direction. The estimated margin of error for the sample of likely Republican primary voters is 3.5 points.

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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