Pollsters and political experts are starting to all but write off Proposition 38, the income tax hike measure on the November ballot, putting the focus on whether the campaign's wealthy backer will now set her sights on defeating Gov. Jerry Brown's competing measure.
A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released Friday shows that just 34 percent of registered voters plan to vote for Proposition 38, while 52 percent oppose it. Analysts said they can't remember a state measure coming back from that large a deficit with only several weeks to go before an election -- particularly one asking most Californians to raise their own taxes.
"You never say never, especially in such a volatile political environment," said poll director Dan Schnur, director of USC's Unruh Institute of Politics. "But there's no historical precedent for an initiative making up this much ground in weeks before an election."
With the future of California schools at stake and tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash in play, the poll results are sure to ramp up a rivalry between those touting the two high-profile tax measures on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Funded by civil rights attorney Molly Munger, Proposition 38 would increase income taxes by 0.4 to 2.2 percent, depending on how much you make, to fund K-12 and early-childhood education.
It must receive more votes than Brown's competing Proposition 30. That measure would increase the sales tax by a quarter of a cent and raise income taxes on people making at least $250,000 a year to fund schools and help balance the general-fund budget.
The new poll shows 54 percent of respondents endorsing Proposition 30, with 37 percent opposed.
With Proposition 38 struggling, observers are waiting to see if Munger, who has already contributed nearly $30 million toward her campaign, will shift strategies.
Will she continue to funnel millions of dollars into her campaign, or will she instead start spending huge money on attack ads to defeat Brown's measure? Or will she simply throw in the towel and back Proposition 30 over her measure?
"The fear is that (she) will bring down Prop. 30 without doing anything to (help) Prop. 38," said state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, a Proposition 30 supporter. "That is a slow-motion train wreck that does not need to happen."
Munger and Brown feuded this summer over who's tax measure was better. Brown tried to get Munger to drop her initiative, saying it would decrease the likelihood that either one would pass. But Munger didn't budge.
Proposition 38's first television ad this week took a shot at the governor and his measure by blaming "Sacramento politicians" for the state's education crisis and implying that Proposition 30 was not the way to solve it. But Munger has yet to fund a direct attack against Brown's initiative.
Nathan Ballard, campaign spokesman for Proposition 38, said the campaign will spend its remaining money on pushing the measure, not bringing down Proposition 30.
"This campaign has only just begun and it would be absurd to count us out," said Ballard, noting the first statewide ad hadn't even started running when the USC/Los Angeles Times poll was in the field. "Our research says that we can win."
Still, when pollsters gave voters arguments in favor of Proposition 38, the results barely changed. And unions have contributed enough money to bankroll a formidable TV campaign backing Proposition 30. The campaign now has $22 million at its disposal.
Munger could be the biggest wild card available to sink Proposition 30, as the anti-tax groups trying to defeat the measure have only raised about $1.2 million. Proposition 30 campaign officials say the only way Munger could defeat Brown's initiative is to run direct attack ads against it.
"But I have faith that's not going to happen," said Ace Smith, Proposition 30's campaign manager.
The poll also showed that 51 percent of voters are likely to support Proposition 39, which would cut off about $1 billion worth of tax loopholes for out-of-state businesses. Only 29 percent are opposed.
The poll of 1,504 registered voters was conducted from Sept. 17 through Sept. 23. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.
Measure would raise state sales tax and income taxes on the rich.
Measure would raise income taxes for most Californians to provide billions more to schools.
Measure would end out-of-state business tax loopholes
A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of 1,504 registered voters was conducted from Sept. 17 through Sept. 23. The margin of error is +/- 2.9 percent.