California voters favor Newsom over Harris, don't want Biden to run again, poll finds

A watch party for Thursday's presidential debate at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.
Most California voters polled say they've seen enough of former President Trump and President Biden, shown debating onscreen in San Francisco at a drive-in watch party in 2020. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
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Californians have little appetite for a rematch of the 2020 presidential race, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, with strong majorities of the state’s voters hoping neither President Biden nor former President Trump runs again in two years.

The poll, co-sponsored by The Times, found that roughly 6 in 10 respondents are against Biden trying for a second term in 2024 — a striking reluctance in a solidly Democratic state that he won handily. Another Trump campaign would be even less popular, with more than 70% in opposition.

Vice President Kamala Harris, widely considered Biden’s chosen successor to lead the party, also struggles to find traction in California, her home state, lagging behind Gov. Gavin Newsom and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont as voters’ choice for president if Biden does not run. But no candidate emerges as the consensus favorite for the Democratic nomination in this early gauge of potential 2024 contenders.

“While many California Democrats are not convinced that Biden should run again, the absence of a clear Democratic alternative may afford [him] more space in avoiding a serious primary challenge should he decide to seek reelection,” said Eric Schickler, co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies.

The findings come at a time when Democrats are increasingly vocal about their anxieties over the next presidential campaign.

Biden, 79, has consistently said he intends to run, but has already made history as the oldest president. Republicans frequently call attention to his age, questioning his fitness for the job. He will be 82 on Inauguration Day 2025.

“The age factor has to be looming in many voters’ minds,” said Mark DiCamillo, who co-directs the institute.

Just 3 in 10 California voters in the poll said they supported another Biden candidacy, while 61% were opposed — nearly identical to the share of the vote he won in the state in 2020. Among poll respondents who voted for him two years ago, nearly half said they opposed him running again. And among voters with favorable views of Biden’s current job performance, nearly 30% said they would not like to see him run in 2024.

Nor is there a loud clamor in California for Harris, 57, the state’s former U.S. senator, to assume the Democratic Party’s mantle. The vice president’s approval ratings have flagged, even in her home state.

Her allies see an opportunity for Harris to break from the polling doldrums by leading the administration’s efforts to preserve abortion rights. Still, voters eligible to participate in the Democratic presidential primary in California — those registered as Democrats or with no party preference — ranked her third in a list of potential candidates for the Democratic nomination if Biden is not on the ballot in two years; 1 in 10 had Harris as their top pick.

“You’d think the sitting vice president would be a natural alternative [to Biden], especially one from our own state,” DiCamillo said. “That’s not coming through in this poll.”

Harris trails fellow Californian Newsom, 54, and Sanders, 80, the two-time presidential candidate who won the Democratic primary in the state in 2020. Newsom and Sanders each ranked as the top choice of 13% of respondents.

Newsom pulls further ahead when respondents’ second-choice candidates are factored in. A quarter of California Democratic and no-party-preference voters cited Newsom as their first or second pick, while 18% said Sanders and Harris were in their top two.

In the San Francisco Bay Area — where Newsom and Harris both built their political careers — Newsom has an 8-point edge over Harris as voters’ first or second choice.

Newsom has said repeatedly that he is not planning to run for president in 2024. Still, speculation that he may have White House ambitions abounds as he keeps himself in the national spotlight. He taunts red state Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas with television and newspaper ads, posts comments on Trump’s conservative social media network, and calls out his own party for its meek response to abortion rights being overturned.

“He’s filling a void,” DiCamillo said. “It shows you that there is room and space for another voice within the Democratic Party to appear.”

Though just a quarter of California voters in the survey said they want to see Trump, 76, run again in two years, the former president remains the strong favorite among the state’s Republicans. Two-thirds of registered GOP voters said they back another Trump candidacy, compared with 7% of Democrats and 21% of voters not aligned with a party.

Unlike on the Democratic side, however, there is a clearer consensus for an alternative GOP candidate. DeSantis, 43, would be the first choice for 27% of registered California Republicans polled, even if Trump ran too. Support for DeSantis climbs to 53% with Trump off the ballot. The next-closest contender, former Vice President Mike Pence, notched just 9% in a hypothetical Trump-free primary.

With so much time left before election day in 2024, the standings of potential candidates on either side are bound to shift. To DiCamillo, the bigger takeaway is that Californians want to avoid rehashing 2020, and feel strongly about that.

“When you ask about Biden, 41% strongly oppose him running. When you go to Trump, it’s 65%,” DiCamillo said. “That’s an incredibly large number of voters saying they strongly disapprove or oppose his candidacy.”

Overall, Biden gets a mixed assessment from California voters, who are evenly split with 48% approval and 48% disapproval. The appraisal, which stayed relatively steady in the Institute of Governmental Studies’ polls this February and April, remains low for a Democratic president in staunchly blue California, but it outpaces Biden’s national approval ratings, which hover around 40%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average of recent polls.

Nearly three-quarters of Democrats in the Berkeley institute’s latest poll gave Biden positive marks, but he is underwater with no-party-preference voters, 51% of whom disapprove of his job performance. California’s Republicans are almost uniformly sour on Biden, with 92% giving him a low grade.

The UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll surveyed 9,254 registered California voters Aug. 9-15. The poll was administered online in English and Spanish. The estimated overall sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points. Among Democratic primary voters, the estimated sampling error is plus or minus 2.5 points, and among Republican primary voters, it is plus or minus 3 points.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.