Amid a relentless barrage of attack ads, support for Gov. Jerry Brown's tax-hike initiative has dipped below 50 percent for the first time in a statewide poll, putting the measure in a precarious position with less than two weeks to go before Election Day.
In a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 48 percent of likely voters supported and 44 percent opposed Proposition 30, which would raise income taxes on the wealthy and increase the state sales tax by a quarter-cent.
Because voters tend to mistrust initiatives and tend to vote "no" on most of them -- particularly those hiking taxes -- ballot measures have historically needed the support of well over 50 percent heading into an election to survive.
A defeat of Proposition 30 would trigger $5.4 billion in cuts in January to K-12 schools and community colleges, and an additional $250 million each to the University of California and California State University. It could also complicate Brown's ability to govern for the remainder of his term -- with battles over deeper cuts with Democratic legislators looming -- and even dent his legacy, political observers said.
"He's put so much energy into it," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State. "He's done everything you can do; he's been extremely proactive, laid out his case as clearly as you can. It can't help but impact his legacy if it loses because he's made it the cornerstone of this term."
Brown has been crisscrossing the state in recent weeks in a rush of Proposition 30 campaign events, visiting college campuses, public schools, business gatherings, editorial boardrooms and churches. He has tens of millions of dollars of ads on television and radio.
"I'm not sleeping late," Brown told this newspaper. "I'm getting up early. I'm doing everything I can between now and Election Day to make sure people know the facts. We're looking for new opportunities, both on the campaign trail and in the media. We're looking at every trail, every avenue. I will leave no stone unturned.
"I just want to make sure people are able to make an informed choice so that they vote yes or no and they know what they're going to get."
Proposition 30 has come under a heavy television advertising blitz, first from wealthy civil rights lawyer Molly Munger, who is bankrolling a rival measure, Proposition 38, which seeks to raise taxes on all but the poor to finance $10 billion in new school funding for 12 years. In the PPIC poll, her measure garnered only 39 percent support, with 53 percent opposed.
Even after Munger pulled an ad that education advocates said was too harsh, Brown's initiative has continued to take on-air hits from the Small Business Action Committee and a separate but linked No on 30 campaign -- both of which benefited from an $11 million contribution from a shadowy Arizona group that is under investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to disclose who its donors are.
"It never helps when you're attacked with false and deceptive attacks," said Dan Newman, a spokesman for Proposition 30. "We don't have $11 million dropping on our doorsteps out of the sky. But we will use all our resources to get the word out."
As of Oct. 14, Proposition 30 proponents had raised $51.8 million, compared with the opponents' $30.8 million. But that was before the secret $11 million contribution.
Opponents of the measure said the poll vindicates their ad campaign.
"This shows that once voters learn none of Proposition 30's tax hike is guaranteed to go to the classroom, they don't support it," said Aaron McLear, spokesman for the No on 30 campaign.
In the poll, Brown's measure is losing support from independent voters. A month ago, they favored the initiative 53 percent to 44 percent. Now that's essentially been reversed: Only 43 percent of independents support it, while 50 percent oppose it.
"That's a significant change," said Mark Baldassare, PPIC's president and CEO. "As we've gotten closer to the election, the underlying distrust in government that independents have may be giving them pause for thought."
What Brown must hope happens, Baldassare said, is that he gets a turnout boost from the presidential race. More than two-thirds of Latinos, young and Democratic voters -- President Barack Obama's core constituencies -- support Proposition 30. Only 40 percent of whites favor the measure.
Though Obama holds a 12-point lead in California over Mitt Romney, the GOP standard-bearer, it's Republicans who are showing more enthusiasm, Baldassare said. Seventy percent of Romney's supporters say they are more enthusiastic than usual, compared with 60 percent of Obama's supporters. In 2008, Obama had the enthusiasm edge over John McCain, 76 percent to 59 percent.
"The enthusiasm of voters about the presidential election will affect who turns out to vote," Baldassare said. "And that may well make a difference in the outcomes of the statewide propositions."
So far, the Obama enthusiasm gap has not hurt labor's campaign against Proposition 32, the measure that would curb unions' ability to collect dues and prohibit direct contributions to campaigns from unions and corporations.
Only 39 percent favor Proposition 32, while 53 percent said they would vote no.
The poll, taken Oct. 14-21, surveyed 993 likely voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.