Sheriff Sandra Hutchens holds a double-digit lead over her closest rival as the June 8 election nears and preparations begin for the final months of the campaign, according to the results of a Voice of OC/Probolsky Research poll released Wednesday.
The poll shows Hutchens garnering 26.7 percent of the vote if the election were held today, giving her a significant advantage over challengers Bill Hunt and Craig Hunter, who polled at 11.3 percent and 7.4 percent, respectively.
But more than half the 326 likely voters polled said they remain undecided, which means that either Hunt or Hunter could still force a November runoff despite their weak poll numbers at this juncture.
A key in the final stretch will be independent expenditures by interest groups, such as the gun rights lobby or the sheriff's deputies union. This spending is almost certain to play a role over the final two months of the campaign given the high number - 54.6 percent - of undecided voters and the anemic fundraising thus far of all three candidates.
Far less certain is which groups will pony up, and who will benefit. The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs endorsed Hunt and is expected to spend on his behalf. But Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino said that his union is standing pat for the primary, at least for now.
"At this time, we are not going to be entering this race with any independent expenditures," Berardino said.
Local politicos were surprised aot how low the poll numbers were for all the candidates. Voice of OC's Polling Consultant Adam Probolsky said they indicate that Hutchens may pull off a June victory because interest among voters in the Sheriff's office is low and her lead is substantial.
"People just don't care. They feel safe," he said. "And a 2-1 margin is hard to overcome. You need an earthquake to change the landscape."
Yet Hutchens has run into problems with just about every countywide elected official since she took over the department in 2008 after county supervisors appointed her on a 3-2 vote.
She has fought supervisors on budget cuts and concealed weapons policies and has been criticized for a leadership style that is too LA-centric.
Hutchens argues that she has come into Orange County as a change agent and straightened out a department that was badly run under former Sheriff Mike Carona, who was indicted in 2008 on corruption charges.
Meanwhile, Hunt and Hunter have each sought out different constituencies to fuel their run against Hutchens.
Hunt, a former deputy sheriff, last month won the endorsement of rank-and-file deputy sheriffs. Hunter, the current deputy police chief of Anaheim, is seen as a staunch supporter of gun rights and a more liberal concealed weapons policy.
Hutchens has raised the most money, gathering $360,000 since 2009. However, most of that money came in the first half of 2009. She has used a good chunk of her money on slate mailers that will be sent in the coming weeks. As of March 17, she a little over $81,885 left in her account.
Hunter, who despite entering the race last December, has raised more than $115,000 and also has funded slate mailers. He had $24,958 left in mid-March.
Hunt's fundraising tallies have been the weakest, especially given that he ran against former Sheriff Mike Carona campaign four years ago. He raised a total of $94,700 and only had $3,606 left in his account as of mid March.
Hutchen's political consultant Dave Gilliard agreed with Voice of OC polling numbers, saying they were similar to their internal polling. "These numbers show she can get there," Gilliard said, referring to the 50 percent plus one margin needed to win the race outright in June.
If no one candidate wins outright in June, then the top two candidates face off in November.
Gilliard said the Voice of OC poll shows that "there's no time for somebody sitting in single digits to be in a position to be competitive."
Handlers for Hunt and Hunter disagree.
Bill Brough, who is running Hunt's campaign, disputed the Voice of OC poll numbers. "I think we're in a better position than that. He's been running for five years. He got 26 percent of the vote last time."
Indeed, several observers were stunned at Hunt's showing. "I would think Bill would be higher," said deputy union president Wayne Quint.
Tim Clark, a spokesman for the Hunter campaign, said he was happy with his candidate's showing especially given that he didn't enter the race until December.
"My goodness, the incumbent sheriff only has 25 percent and Hunt, whose already been on a ballot (in 2006) only has 11 percent," Clark said.
The campaigns were hesitant to talk about their strategy for the stretch run.
But outside money could change the poll results. Money translates into mail, which is one of the only ways to quickly impact a campaign across a large area such as Orange County.
Gilliard said that Hutchens is already on "over 2 million pieces of mail."
Gun owners who hate Hutchens' policies on concealed weapons could play a role and have been courted by Hunt and Hunter. But it's uncertain how much cash they will bring to the table.
Big labor can usually be counted on to spend in countywide races. But OCEA is staying out of the race and AOCDS still hasn't decided how it will get into the race.
Hunt easily won the AOCDS endorsement, as in 2006, and his campaign is largely dependent on the deputies' union when it comes to mail.
AOCDS President Wayne Quint said his group is waiting for the results of their its own poll to decide strategy.
"Until we have our own data, I have to take a cautious approach," Quint said.
Berardino was clear as to why the OCEA is sitting on its hands. "Looking at the polling numbers, the amount of resources necessary to make a change does not justify the risk," he said.
"We're not motivated to spend the resources to either save [Huthchens] or go against her."