I don't think you're going to see California move to be a battleground state by any stretch of the imagination. —Linda DiVall, Republican pollster
LOS ANGELES — The potent mix of voters that has powered Democratic presidential victories in California for a generation overwhelmingly supports President Barack Obama's bid for re-election, forming a demographic wall blocking Republican Mitt Romney from the biggest pot of electoral votes available in November.
By huge margins, women, independents, moderates and Latinos are arrayed against the presumptive Republican nominee, according to a University of Southern California Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of registered voters that found Obama leading overall 56 percent to 37 percent.
Although Romney has made up ground nationally since the primary season essentially ended in April, he has not improved his standing in California against Obama. The presidential race has been frozen in polls dating to last year, with Romney's California support substantially below Obama's among the vast majority of voter groups. Obama was winning at least 6 of every 10 women and moderates, and three-quarters of Latino voters.
Moreover, Obama's voters were mobilized by support for him _ unlike many of Romney's voters. Less than half of Romney backers said they were casting a ballot in order to vote for him, while the majority was doing so to vote against Obama. Among Obama voters, 83 percent were voting for the president, and 15 percent were motivated by disdain for Romney.
The indifferent embrace of Romney among many Republicans could be seen in findings on the June 5 Republican primary. Romney walloped the all-but-dormant field of candidates on the ballot (he is expected to clinch the nomination in Tuesday's Texas primary, exceeding the 1,144 delegates needed). But still, only 6 in 10 conservatives and half of moderates _ among Republican primary voters _ were siding with Romney.
As much as anything, the poll demonstrated anew how Democratic success in the state has been driven by the ascent of demographic groups allied with the party. Women make up 53 percent of registered voters; Latinos and independent voters _ those who register as unaligned with any party _ each form 20 percent. Their backing of Obama was typical of their support for most Democratic candidates, particularly at the top of the ticket.
The last Republican presidential nominee to win California was George H.W. Bush, whose narrow 1988 victory came before Latinos and independents rose in prominence. Since then, the state has been plundered for campaign donations but virtually ignored every fall, a fate not expected to change this year.
The demographic forces were personified by Josefina Gonzalez, an independent voter from La Puente who said she was strongly committed to Obama. Asked why, in a follow-up interview, she replied: "Pretty much everything."
"The way he has handled the economy. The jobs going up. The unemployment going down. The foreign policy — I'm a veteran, so knocking the troops out of Iraq and troops coming out of Afghanistan, that's good," said Gonzalez, an active-duty soldier for two years who is now, at 27, a stay-at-home mother.
As for Romney, she dismissed him as akin to other Republicans.
"He would do what everyone does — Bush and everyone. He's going to help the corporate America, like everyone else," she said. "He's going to work for them, pretty much, not for everyone."
Obama's recently announced support for same-sex marriage — and Romney's backing of a constitutional amendment banning it — had only a limited effect on the choices for November, and that accrued to the president's benefit.
Only 20 percent of California voters said the issue would serve as a litmus test for their general election decision; of those, 51 percent sided with Obama and 43 percent with Romney. More than a third of voters who disagreed with Obama's position were still in his camp; 15 percent of those who disagreed with Romney's view planned to cast ballots for him.
"This is not a key voting issue for the vast majority of the electorate," said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm that conducted the survey along with the Republican firm American Viewpoint.
The poll, jointly sponsored by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times, questioned 1,002 registered California voters from May 17-21. The margin of sampling error overall was 3.5 percentage points in either direction; the margin for subgroups was somewhat larger.
The strong Democratic currents in California could be seen when voters were asked which candidate they preferred on a host of issues. Romney has often scored better than the president in national polls that ask voters who would best handle the economy and related matters. Not so in California.
By 50 percent to 37 percent, voters said they thought Obama would handle the economy and jobs better. They also gave him better marks when it came to dealing with the deficit (45 percent to 34 percent) and taxes (49 percent to 34 percent).
Romney was seen as better equipped to handle gas prices, by 7 percentage points, and voters were split on the matter of spending.
A greater gap emerged on issues that touch on class and gender divides that have already inflamed the presidential campaign.
The biggest came when voters were asked who would best look out for the interests of women _ 59 percent said Obama, 23 percent said Romney. Women were more emphatic, giving Obama a 60 percent-20 percent advantage. (The 36-percentage-point gap overall barely exceeded Obama's 34-percentage-point margin on health care.)
When it came to standing up for the middle class, Obama led 56 percent to 29 percent, and he had emphatic leads as well when voters were asked which candidate was the strongest leader and which stuck to his principles.
Latino voters have been a key target of both campaigns, but their verdict in California could presage difficulties for Romney nationally. Besides backing Obama by a startling 74 percent to 18 percent, Latinos sided with him on every issue by heavy margins. When it came to health care, Obama led by 67 percentage points; on jobs and the economy by 43 percentage points; on protecting the middle class by 52 percentage points.
The Obama-Romney conflict offered some predictable results — Democrats backed the president 86 percent to 8 percent — but also somewhat striking ones. One in five conservative voters sided with Obama, for example, as did 1 in 3 voters in the Central Valley and 17 percent of Republicans. Romney led among those making more than $100,000 per year, but only narrowly, and he was turned aside by those making less money.
Employment mattered, but not in the way Romney's forces might have hoped. Among those holding a job, Obama led 57 percent to 37 percent. But among the unemployed — those who had lost a job or were working in the home — Obama was even more popular, leading 70 percent to 19 percent.
All told, Obama's numbers suggested he was en route to another romping win, as he enjoyed in California in 2008.
"California is clearly an outlier state in terms of political attitudes," said Linda DiVall, the Republican pollster who co-conducted the survey. "I don't think you're going to see California move to be a battleground state by any stretch of the imagination."
The last USC/Times poll of California was conducted as Republican candidates furiously sought the nomination. Since then, Romney has consolidated the GOP vote somewhat.
Having won the support of 42 percent of primary voters in March, he now wins 55 percent, with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich each receiving the support of 1 in 10 voters despite not contesting the state.
Among Republicans too, Romney did better among wealthier voters, gaining 61 percent of those making over $100,000 and 56 percent of those making $50,000 or less.
The new poll made clear that the best argument Romney could make to some voters is that he is not Obama, since, among others, more than half of the men and conservatives siding with him said they would cast ballots against Obama rather than for Romney.
David Holton of Livermore, a retired civil engineer, said he was "troubled" by Romney's support of a health care plan in Massachusetts that served as a model for Obama's federal program. But, he added, "I really disagree with Obama's basic position that the government can solve all problems by throwing money at the problems and money at the voters."
As to whether Romney could summon enough voters to win California, Holton added with a chuckle:
"I think he's got no chance."