Before we see and hear a lot of hyperventilating about how important California is in deciding who gets elected president of the United States – mostly from political writers hoping to justify their travel budgets and expense accounts — let’s consider some of the facts of life.
No Republican (or pro-life candidate) has carried California in a general election since 1988, when Vice President George H.W. Bush beat Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis 51-48%. By November 2012, it will have been 24 years since California chose a Republican for president. Barack Obama won the general election in California over Republican John McCain 61-37% after losing the 2008 Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton 52-43%. John Kerry, Al Gore and Bill Clinton all carried California.
President Obama will win California in 2012. The Republican presidential nominee may come here in the fall to raise money, to generate free media or to placate GOP stalwarts. But his or her media buy and campaign organization will be puny because anything else would be a big fat waste of time and money. As GOP consultant Rob Stutzman explained to us, “No campaigns are active here except for raising money. Also, none of these campaigns have the resources to plan for a contingency like California.”
The most likely scenario: So California’s 55 electoral votes will indeed be important – to Obama. But California will not be a battleground state: it will be part of the Obama-Biden campaign’s assumed base.
Moreover, the nomination calendar is so front-loaded — not only by Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, but also by Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan, Massachusetts and Texas (to name a few) — that by the time California Republicans have their say, it’s likely the GOP nominee already will have been decided.
Republicans are a lot more hierarchical than Democrats. They don’t like messy, riotous, protracted nominations and they tend to fall in behind their candidate a lot sooner than Democrats do. But not always.
In 1976, Ronald Reagan won enough states, including North Carolina, Texas, Ohio and California, to take his campaign all the way to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City where Vice President Gerald Ford won on the first ballot by just 117 delegate votes, taking only 53% of the 2,258 votes cast.
True, that was a long time ago. But the GOP today is more fractured than ever.
Infused with tea partiers who would dismantle government altogether and emboldened by a Democratic president who, despite his Chicago roots, seems constitutionally incapable of playing tough, the know-nothing wing of the Republican Party holds great sway.
How else can you explain the fact that a genuinely bat-shit, ignoramus congresswoman from a cold Midwestern state (we name no names) is taken seriously as a potential presidential contender?
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the odds-on favorite, having run before and raised the most money. But plenty of Republicans don’t trust him for religious (his Mormonism) and ideological (pro-choice/anti-choice, e.g.) reasons. And if ultra-right, Bible-enforcing, Constitution shredding Texas Gov. Rick Perry gets in this week, he may quickly become the flavor of the week. Not to mention a cast of other GOP characters who are trying to capture attention and taking pot shots at the leaders in the polls.
Out in Iowa, where the Republicans prepare for a big debate on Thursday and straw poll on Saturday, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul and others already are trying to establish themselves in the top tier of candidates.
The most likely scenario going forward is that one candidate or another will rack up a series of victories and wrap up the nomination before California votes. As our friend Sal Russo of Sacramento, founder and strategist for the Tea Party Express, explained, “No one has the resources to mount any kind of serious campaign here, so they all just choose to skip it. The system puts a premium on momentum, which means once someone strings together a few wins, all of the pins fall over before California.”
How the state could be in play: But it’s not inconceivable that by June 5, 2012, the Republican presidential nomination could still be in doubt. If the GOP nomination is still undecided, California’s estimated 172 delegates — the bulk of them awarded winner-take-all in congressional districts – would represent about 15% of the total needed to secure the nomination.
Let’s say (just for the sake of argument) that by June the field is winnowed down to Romney, Perry and Bachmann. Even with eMeg the Magnificent as his finance chairperson, Romney, who pulled a million votes (35%) in 2008 against McCain in California and who had the best favorability and most backing in the June Field Poll, might not have a lock on California.
Given the sometimes ultra-right tendencies of California GOP primary voters, Perry and Bachmann – if they have resources and organizations – might well make it a contest. Which is why it makes sense that Bachmann has already accepted a speaking slot at the California Republican Party’s statewide September convention in Los Angeles and why, unless they’re loony, Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman, Gingrich and Perry (if he’s a candidate) ought to do the same.
Romney, in particular, who’s got a $12-million beachfront home down in La Jolla, has the most to lose by stiffing the state GOP. He’s already lost some of his edge. As our friend Jim Brulte noted the other day, his people wanted the GOP primary to remain early, since he has run in California before, but with the primary now set for June, all the others have a chance to catch up to him.
Another factor to keep in mind, we were reminded by GOP strategist Jarrod Agen: early voting by permanent absentee voters means that even though primary day isn’t until June, plenty of Republicans will have filled out their ballots and mailed them long before. So establishing, maintaining and re-enforcing support – especially among Republican activists – could prove important to whether candidates can make use of the treasure trove of delegates California offers.
Bottom line: California will continue to serve as a source of campaign contributions and free media for Republican presidential candidates. But unless no one is able to wrap up the nomination before June, California won’t be much of a factor in the GOP race. If however, the race is unresolved by June, California could be the pivotal contest.