Neel Kashkari, who?
With five months before the general election, the Republican candidate trying to unseat the popular Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has a long way to go introducing himself to California voters, according to a Field Poll released today.
Most voters who say they intend to vote -- 56 percent -- simply have no opinion of Kashkari whatsoever, good or bad. Call it the big shrug.
"There's a lot of work he needs to do," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. "That's the task. To introduce himself to the electorate and in doing so contrast his candidacy to that of Brown and give voters a reason for not re-electing the governor."
The poll is the first major survey on the governor's race since Kashkari beat tea party Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly early this month. It shows Brown with a 20-point lead among likely voters -- 52 percent to 32 percent. And 85 percent of the electorate, including Republicans, know quite clearly whether they like him or not (and 54 percent do). But only about half as many -- 44 percent -- have an opinion about Kashkari, with 28 percent viewing him favorably.
It's not all bad for the 41-year-old Republican, a former aerospace engineer and assistant secretary of the treasury under President George W. Bush.
"Keep in mind, before the June primary, he was only on TV for one week before the vote," said Bill Whalen of the Hoover Institution. "This is not Arnold Schwarzenegger, who walked into the recall campaign (against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis) with 90- to 95-percent name recognition."
That means Kashkari will need to muster the resources to have a sustained media campaign to build up that recognition, Whalen said. And as ever-evolving as politics are in California, he said, running cheap online social media campaigns won't be enough.
"The fact is, for one to drive name recognition," Whalen said, "one has to go on television."
Kashkari campaign officials said they were encouraged by the Field Poll results, especially numbers showing that 71 percent of likely Republicans voters support him, as well as 25 percent of likely voters who have stated no party preference.
"It's encouraging to see Neel outpacing GOP registration and dramatically improving his favorability among the voters we were targeting in June," said Kashkari's campaign manager, Pat Melton.
"Once all voters examine the governor's dismal record overseeing the nation's worst schools, jobs climate and poverty," he said, "we're confident they'll support Neel's positive, inclusive message and his plans to rebuild the middle class."
Political experts say that Kashkari must make inroads with the voters who are "in play." And those include the nonpartisans and the middle-of-the-roaders.
"Those are the two key subgroups that Kashkari would have to target and turn around because both are comfortably siding with Brown," DiCamillo said. "How does he win the support and loyalty of those voters who could be considered 'in play?' It's going to be a tall order."
But Whalen said that while the odds are stacked against Kashkari, it's important that if and when he loses to Brown, he does so with respectable numbers.
The more Kashkari can beckon voters to the polls, he said, the better the other Republicans running for office will fare.
"It's a world of difference finishing with 30 percent instead of 40 percent," Whalen said. "What sort of undertow are you creating for the down-ticket -- everybody else on the ballot below?"
"Given the endgame is not winning, it's losing with dignity and not hurting the ticket, it's not a bad position to be in," Whalen said. "Having 32 percent without anyone knowing his name -- he could get to 40 percent. Then he still loses, but it's not a cataclysmic loss that absolutely kills the ticket."
Staff writer Jessica Calefati contributed to this report. Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409 or follow her on Twitter.com/juliasulek.