Voters can watch Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown square off in a debate at UC Davis at 6 p.m. tonight. The event airs on KTVU in the Bay Area, and California Watch will be live blogging the event. Check back at CaliforniaWatch.org just before the debate.
For months, polls have shown Whitman and Brown in a virtual dead heat. So a new Los Angeles Times-USC sponsored survey that gives Brown a slight edge has Whitman headquarters in a mild uproar on the eve of the first gubernatorial debate in a bitterly contested race.
Team Whitman says the Times Poll (conducted by independent polling firms Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and American Viewpoint) under-sampled Republicans, unfairly giving Brown an artificial 5-point lead.
The evidence doesn't appear to back this assertion up, however.**
The Times Poll, a survey of 877 voters during Sept. 15-22, awards Brown 49 percent of the electorate over Whitman’s 44 percent – slightly widening the 1-point sliver from a Rasmussen poll conducted during the same week. (Rasmussen awarded Brown 47 percent and Whitman 46 percent.)
With a +/- 2.5 percent margin of error, the Times Poll hardly signals a dramatic shift. But with both candidates gearing up for a debate that experts say could break the deadlock, the last thing the Whitman camp wants is headlines like this one in the Christian Science Monitor. Or this one on the CNN Political Ticker.
So the Whitman camp fired off a memo this weekend, arguing the Times Poll is inaccurate because it counts too many Democrats. The poll is “out-of-step” with yet another poll conducted during the same week that found the electorate evenly split, Whitman pollsters David B. Hill and John McLaughlin pointed out. That poll, the widely respected Field Poll, has Whitman and Brown garnering 41 percent each (margin of error: +/- 4.1 percentage points).
“Bottom line: We do not feel the LA Times poll accurately reflects the current state of the race,” Hill and McLaughlin wrote. “We stand by our internal polls, which more closely align with The Field Poll.”
Whitman's campaign said that the Times' pollsters assumed Democrats will turn out by 14-15 percentage points higher than Republicans and weighted the results accordingly. The Field Poll trumpeted by the Whitman camp only gives Democrats a 9-point lead.
So did the Times Poll over-sample Democrats, as the Whitman camp claims?
UPDATE: Peyton Craighill, senior assciate with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, told the New York Times that the Whitman campaign is misreading the poll:
The heart of the comparison that the Whitman campaign is making is not accurate. They are comparing the Party ID of our sample to the party registration of the Field poll. These are two different numbers. Party ID asks how people generally identify themselves politically. Party registration is determined by how people registered in the state and is part of the registered voter file from which we sample respondents.
Our party registration numbers are almost identical to the Field poll, +8 Dem in ours vs. +9 Dem in Field. The Whitman campaign neglected to highlight this distinction.
You can find these data reported in the first page of our cross tabs (PDF).
While experts generally agree California Democrats will always find their way to the polls in larger numbers, it’s impossible to know precisely how big that gap will be. Two years ago, a CNN exit poll conducted during the presidential election found the state’s Democrats had beaten Republicans at the polls by 12 points – essentially splitting the difference between the Times and Field polls.
This year, experts muse that various factors could mobilize certain segments of either party. Perhaps young voters will be so excited about Proposition 19, the initiative to legalize marijuana, that they’ll turn out in droves. That would drive the Democratic majority up. Or maybe the Democratic nightmare known as the Tea Party will exert its strength here in California, as it has in elections across the nation, mobilizing conservative voters and narrowing the gap in the liberal-leaning state. (According to the recent Field Poll, some 23 percent of California voters are affiliated with the increasingly popular conservative movement.)
**This post has been edited from a previous version to include a response from Greenberg Quinlan.