A memo from the Democratic polling firm Tuchin Research, released to me this week by the campaign of 26th Congressional District Democratic candidate Julia Brownley, confirms what most knowledgeable observers have said about the Ventura County District since it was created last summer: It's a toss-up district with a very slight Democratic tilt.
The live telephone poll of 400 likely November voters, conducted July 15-19, shows Brownley leading 48 percent to 44 percent over Republican Tony Strickland. It's an encouraging number for Brownley, but hardly one to make Strickland start to panic. The lead is within the poll's margin of error of +/- 4.9 percent.
The mix of respondents was 41 percent Democrats, 37 percent Republicans and 22 percent independents. That's almost exactly the actual registration spread between Democrats and Republicans; on Election Day, the spread typically narrows because GOP voters tend to turn out better than Democrats.
The poll illustrates why the district has been seen as a battleground from the outset. The presidential vote is 50 percent for Barack Obama, 45 percent for Mitt Romney, and asked a generic question about whether they would vote for a Democrat or Republican for Congress, respondents split 46 percent to 42 percent for a Democrat.
In their memo, pollsters Ben Tulchin and Ben Krompak, say the results confirm "the Democratic-leaning nature of the district" and assert that Brownley is "as well positioned as any congressional Democratic candidate in the country to capture a seat currently held by a Republican." (Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, now represents most of the area inside the new district.)
Tulchin told me yesterday the poll reveals a sharp "partisan polarization" of district voters, suggesting that the outcome will likely be determined by the 19 percent of district voters who are independents. He said the poll showed Brownley with a slight lead among independents.
Strickland campaign strategist Joe Justin, noting that the poll followed a campaign season in which Brownley and her supporters campaigned aggressively, said the results were surprising only in that they did not show the Democrat to be in a stronger position. "She and her Super PAC supporters mailed over 36 attack pieces against Linda Parks, and spent hundreds of thousands on cable. I'm surprised she's this weak," Justin wrote in an email answering my request for a response.