California voters want a ‘fresh and new voice’ in the U.S. Senate

With Kamala Harris poised to become vice president, almost half of California voters want someone with no experience in Washington or Sacramento to fill the Senate vacancy, the USC Schwarzenegger Institute’s latest poll finds.

November 06, 2020 Jenesse Miller

As Americans remain transfixed by media coverage of the presidential election results, a new survey offers insights into who Californians want to see take the place of Sen. Kamala Harris in the event that former Vice President Joe Biden is elected president.

The USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy’s California Issues Poll asked registered voters several questions about who should fill the vacancy if the Biden-Harris ticket is successful. The results show 3 out of 4 California voters want a senator with “a fresh and new voice in politics” (76%), with legislative experience (75%) and who will “chart their own course and distinguish themselves” from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (77%).

Almost half of voters prefer someone with no experience in Washington, D.C., or in Sacramento (48%), while others prefer someone with experience in the nation’s capital (29%) over experience in California’s capital (23%).

“Sen. Kamala Harris may be on the brink of becoming vice president, creating a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, and Gov. Gavin Newsom is charged with choosing her replacement,” said Christian Grose, academic director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute and an associate professor of political science and public policy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “The USC Schwarzenegger California Issues Poll wanted to learn what Californians thought about who the governor should choose for that prized seat.”

The poll, fielded in the final week of October, also asked for voters’ views on the issues that President Donald Trump’s administration would focus on in 2021 if the president is reelected, and the issues that a Biden administration would focus on if he is elected. Participants were also asked about voting rights and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s democracy grants administered through the institute at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

New poll digs deeper into what California wants from a potential new senator

About half of California voters say they don’t care if Gov. Gavin Newsom makes a “historic first” choice. Among those who say it matters, 31% of voters hope Newsom picks the state’s first Latino U.S. senator and 24% hope he picks the state’s first LGBT U.S. senator.

When provided specific names of who may replace Harris in the Senate, California Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, leads the pack. However, most voters aren’t aware of the likely top candidates to replace Harris. In a head-to-head question, voters were asked “Which of the following people would you most prefer to be appointed U.S. senator from California?” This question pitted seven individuals that Newsom could choose for U.S. Senator, and a majority of voters (52%) selected “don’t know.” Of those receiving support, Lee led with 11%.

Voters were also asked about supporting each possible candidate without the head-to-head matchup and following short biographical descriptions. For that question, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia received a majority of support (57%), followed by state Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles (53%); Secretary of State Alex Padilla (53%); and Lee (51%). Three others were supported by a plurality of the state’s voters but were below 50% support: Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf; Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara; and California State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

When asked about the most important issue facing the state right now, California voters rate wildfires and climate change as the most important issue (24%), even above COVID-19, which was the second-most important issue (15%). Californians also support Schwarzenegger’s initiative through the USC Schwarzenegger Institute to award nonpartisan democracy grants to open more polling places across the U.S. South, with 76% strongly supporting it and 14% somewhat supporting it.

Finally, the poll asked about voters’ preferences for voting in the 2020 election. One-third of California voters expressed concerns about casting their ballots and generally preferred sending their ballot in the mail (30%) and receiving their ballot in the mail and dropping it off at a secure drop box (32%) over other options like in-person voting.

Survey methodology: The USC Schwarzenegger Institute’s California Issues Poll was conducted from Oct. 27 to Oct. 31, 2020. A representative polling sample of 1,155 California registered voters was drawn using voter data from Political Data Inc. The survey questionnaire was designed by USC faculty and then fielded by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute-USC Price California Issues Poll survey team via Qualtrics. In the topline results and cross-tabulations, totals may not sum to 100 due to rounding. The survey was written in English and Spanish. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.