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Whitman made inroads with undecided voters, poll shows, at least before housekeeper controversy

Meg whitman file
Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was making significant progress with previously undecided voters during the summer and early fall, according to a poll of California voters conducted by USC students that concluded just before Whitman became enmeshed in a controversy surrounding her former housekeeper.

The poll indicated that the previously undecided voters surveyed favored Whitman over her Democratic rival, Jerry Brown, by a significant margin and viewed her more favorably than they did Brown. By large margins, they believed Whitman would do a better job than Brown in tackling major issues, including the state’s economy, government spending and taxes.

The poll was conducted Sept. 20-27, ending two days before Whitman’s campaign was thrown off course by the news that for nine years she had employed undocumented immigrant Nicandra Diaz Santillan as a housekeeper. Whitman fired Diaz Santillan more than a year ago after learning of her immigration status.

The controversy has overshadowed the Whitman campaign for the last week, and whether it has damaged her status among voters remains unknown. In contrast with Whitman, the poll indicated that the Republican candidate for Senate, Carly Fiorina, had made considerably less progress with the previously undecided voters. By a small margin, they supported incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

To conduct the survey, USC students overseen by political science faculty members contacted registered voters who had said in polls this spring by The Times and USC that they were undecided about their vote either in the Senate race or the contest for governor.

The poll was conducted by phone and contacted 286 previously undecided voters who were randomly selected from the total pool of 1,003 undecided voters in the previous surveys. Voters were interviewed in both English and Spanish. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 5.8 percentage points.

The respondents favored Whitman over Brown, 43% to 32%, and favored Boxer over Fiorina, 39% to 34%, a narrow lead that is well within the poll’s margin of error. In comparison with voters overall, those who said they were undecided were more likely to be women and more likely to describe themselves as independent. They were also slightly older on average than the overall voter population.

Among those who had settled on a candidate, almost 1 in 5 said they had made up their minds in the previous two weeks, with another quarter saying they had made up their minds since early July.

When asked, regardless of which candidate they supported, to predict which candidate would win either the U.S. Senate or governor’s race, pluralities said both races were too close to call. In the Senate race, 40% called the contest too close while 31% said they thought Boxer would win. Only 7% predicted a Fiorina victory. In the race for governor, 45% labeled the race too close to call, and 25% predicted a Whitman victory. Only 12% gave the edge to Brown.

-- David Lauter

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Photo:  Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

 
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