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Rep. Mike Levin holds a strong lead over several challengers in the 49th Congressional District race, according to a recent poll. Councilman Christopher Rodriguez was the leading Republican candidate in the same poll. Courtesy photos/The Coast News graphic
Rep. Mike Levin holds a strong lead over several challengers in the 49th Congressional District race, according to a recent poll. Councilman Christopher Rodriguez was the leading Republican candidate in the same poll. Courtesy photos/The Coast News graphic
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Levin, Rodriguez top two candidates in latest 49th District poll

REGION — A recent poll of the 49th Congressional District race shows Democratic incumbent Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) holding a large and expected lead over a divided field of primary challengers and Councilman Christopher Rodriguez leading the way among Republican candidates. 

In the survey released this week, conducted by co/efficient, a political research and analytics firm, and paid for by Rodriguez’s campaign, Levin polls at 42%, well ahead of runner-up Rodriguez who polled at 13%, as well as Brian Maryott and Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who each polled at 9% respectively.

Josiah O’Neil came in fifth in the survey at 4%, Nadia Smalley polled at 2%, and Renee Taylor rounded off the list of candidates at 1%, with 21% of polled voters marking themselves as undecided. 

The poll, which was taken on May 12, had a 3.65% margin of error, and sampled 720 likely primary voters in District 49. 

“This poll confirms what we already knew about this race, which is that this will be a relatively close race. Right now Levin has the lead and Republican support is split across all these candidates and there’s no frontrunner — that is, none of the Republicans are really standing out,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the UC San Diego. 

“It gives us a pretty good rough guide to the race, it shows that everybody is pretty much tied up within the margin of error on the Republican side at the start and no one has a real advantage out of the gate,” said John Thomas, owner of Thomas Partners Strategies, a California-based campaign strategy and consulting firm.

Thomas’s overall assessment of the survey was that it demonstrates the Republican challengers appear to have name identification challenges in terms of differentiating themselves from the rest of the primary candidates.

“Clearly all of the Republican candidates have relatively low name ID, and to start, they’ll have to change that moving forward with their campaign communication quickly if any one of them wants to break out of the pack,” Thomas said. 

Kousser agreed. 

“I think that this poll shows that voters aren’t really familiar with the Republican candidates, with really none of these three frontrunners [Rodriguez, Bartlett, and Maryott] pulling ahead,” Kousser said. “You have a county supervisor (Bartlett) who is from Orange County, which is a smaller part of the district. You have a city councilman (Rodriguez) who is also coming from a tiny corner of the district in Oceanside. And then you have Maryott, who hasn’t even held (higher) political office yet, so yeah, clearly there’s some name ID issues at play here.”

In comments made to The Coast News, Rodriguez touted the poll as good news for his campaign, while acknowledging that the primary was shaping up to be a tight affair. 

“(Maryott) has all the endorsements from the state party and everything, but I still have the lead,” Rodriguez said. “What it shows is that people in this district are sick and tired of an establishment that does nothing for them and that they want somebody that’s different — an outsider. 

“What this poll really means is that this race is tight — it’s anybody’s race. It could be me, Bartlett, or Maryott, and there’s a lot of voters who haven’t voted yet. In fact, only 8% of the voters in this district have voted so far, and so there’s a large number of undecided people. In the end, what this conveys is that this is a tight race. Am I in the lead? Slightly. Overall, though, we have some great candidates on the ballot and I’m confident that the voters will do their research and pick the best candidate to face Levin.” 

However, both Kousser and Thomas said that it would be a mistake to put too much faith into Rodriguez’s survey, which they said relied on questionable methodology. 

The poll itself was taken using a combination of landline robocalls to voters and questions sent directly over text message. The use of landline calls in particular, Thomas said, could heavily skew the survey’s results because only a certain subset of the population generally uses landline phones.

Additionally, the strategist pointed out that there is no way to confirm the identity of the person picking up the call with a robocall, as opposed to having a live person conduct the phone interview. 

“The gold standard of political polling is still to have live callers, and anything less than that really does introduce the possibility of inaccuracies,” Thomas said. “The challenge you have with landlines is that you’re missing certain segments of the population, particularly minorities and younger voters. Pretty much only older white people have landlines.

“​​You also don’t know who’s answering a landline, it could be a five-year-old pressing buttons,  whereas live caller servers ask for a  person by name, can ask more in-depth questions, and more complicated demographic questions.”

Kousser said without seeing how the questions to voters on the survey were worded, it was difficult to tell whether or not Rodriguez’s campaign had intentionally framed the questions in such a way as to produce the most favorable results possible for the Oceanside city councilman. 

“It’s not clear from the survey what the questions were, nor do we know how the questions were phrased, Kousser said. “Like did they give the occupation and party for each candidate? It surprised me, for instance, that Rodriguez in the uninformed poll polled slightly higher than Maryott and Bartlett, but again this depends a lot on how the candidates were identified.”

In a statement, Bartlett’s campaign manager Tim Lineberger expressed the poll’s results were consistent with their campaign’s own assessments of the race.

“If accurate, this poll confirms what we’ve known all along — after campaigning in the district for over four years, Brian Maryott remains deeply unpopular and has been unable to coalesce any solid base of support,” Lineberger said. “Voters are clearly looking for a viable alternative, who can actually defeat mike levin and help restore economic prosperity in the country. Lisa Bartlett is that person, and there is a very viable path to victory in front of her. Lisa will be campaigning extremely hard to win over undecided voters and close out this race.”

Conversely, Maryott lambasted the poll, which he argued was clearly designed in such a way as to make Rodriguez’s prospects look as favorable as possible. 

“That is an internal survey produced by the Rodriguez campaign, and it is dramatically inconsistent with our own survey data,” a statement from Maryott’s campaign read. “We have every confidence that Brian will win the primary in June and go on to beat Mike Levin in November.”

The survey also asked voters about what policy issues mattered the most to them. By far the majority of those polled indicated that inflation was their top consideration going into the primary (41%). Government overreach and immigration tied for second at 12%, while 9% of voters chose taxation as their top priority. Other issues reflected in the poll included values, health care costs, public safety, job creation, and education. 

However, since the poll was taken, more recent national developments on issues of abortion and gun control are also likely to sway voters heavily in the primary, Kousser and Thomas both said. 

“The big one right now is Roe vs. Wade and you also have people’s minds focused on gun control with these recent shootings and what Congress is or isn’t doing about it, and every Democrat in the country is certainly focusing on it,” Kousser said. “Nationally, there is now some hope that this may not be a terrible year for Democrats after all. A lot ultimately hinges on whether Democrats can come up with a winning message on reproductive rights and gun control.” 

“This poll gives us a good rough guide of where the race is at and it’s fine for top-line stuff,” Thomas said. “But 2 to 3 weeks ago, given what’s happened this month on gun control, abortion, etc, is really a world away. So this doesn’t necessarily tell us where we’re at at this moment in time.”

The Coast News: Election 2022