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California Matters

A Primer on the Golden State Presidential Primary, Crucial for the First Time in Decades.


PIGS FLY: A quick check of the Google Machine yields 456,000 results that refer to California as a political “ATM machine.” That’s stark testimony of an abiding cliché deployed by Beltway Bloviators — that when it comes to presidential politics, each party’s nominees are almost always picked long before our last-in-the-nation primary, even if cash from the Golden State’s moneyed class has copiously fueled them.

Jerry Roberts

This year’s historically screwy campaign, however, appears headed for a crucial California showdown, at least on the Republican side, where voters of the GOP persuasion doubtless will thrill to the spectacle of Donald Trump’s mosh-pit mass rallies and the oleaginous stylings of Ted Cruz, oozing out of their TV sets 30 seconds at a time.

Among Democrats, the subdued Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders clash of economic theories also might be ongoing but likely only as Kabuki theater: June 7 voting might clinch her nomination, giving her the last of the needed 2,383 delegates, although it won’t surprise if she wins earlier.

STATE OF PLAY: Two new polls, by the L.A. Times and the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), install Trump and Clinton as California front-runners — but contain warning signs for both.

Reality TV star Trump leads Texas Senator Cruz 38 to 27 percent among Republican voters in the PPIC survey, with Ohio Governor John Kasich trailing at 12 percent; the Times reported similar findings among the overall GOP electorate but reported only a statistically insignificant, 36 to 35 percent, Trump edge over Cruz among likely voters.

That’s notable because California is not a winner-take-all state; rather, the vast majority of 172 Republican delegates are awarded to the winner in each of its 53 congressional districts. The system benefits Cruz, whose nuts-and-bolts campaign organization is far superior to Trump’s and could help deny the New York blowhard the last of the 1,237 delegates he needs to be nominated neatly, heading off a chaotic open convention, should he fail to win on the first ballot.

California Democrats, unlike Republicans, permit registered independents to vote in their primary. This matters because while Clinton solidly leads Sanders among registered Democrats — 50 to 39 percent, according to PPIC — her advantage shrinks to 48 to 41 percent when decline-to-state independents expected to cast Democratic ballots are included. Delegate selection rules mean that neither candidate will clobber the other, regardless of who wins the popular vote, but an upset of Sanders statewide triumph would be a major embarrassment for Clinton, even if not mathematically determinative.

HISTORY IN BRIEF: As every schoolchild knows, California’s first presidential popular primary election occurred in 1912, when insurgent Theodore Roosevelt body slammed the considerable body of President William Taft 55 to 27 percent (shout-out to Progressive reformer Bob La Follette at 18 percent) and, along the way, picked up state governor Hiram Johnson as his running mate.

At the time, party bosses still controlled the process, and California was one of only eight direct primaries in the nation; Roosevelt staked his nomination claim on widespread success in those contests, but the hacks prevailed in renominating Taft, triggering TR’s walkout and famous failed third-party bid.

(Memo to 2016 Republicans: All this excitement gave the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson; see “Bull Moose Party” before booting Trump in an “open convention.”)

California since has mostly maintained its spot late in the primary schedule; in recent years, state lawmakers tried moving it earlier — most notably in 2008, when Clinton’s win over Barack Obama in February helped sustain her campaign for months — but at $100 million, the experiment was too expensive, as a second primary still was held in June for state and local candidates.

There are other examples of California playing a key role: Robert Kennedy’s Democratic win in 1968 is iconic because he was assassinated moments after declaring victory, and favorite-son governor Ronald Reagan’s stomping of President Gerald Ford boosted him into the 1976 Republican convention, the last one not settled on the first ballot.

LOCAL YOKELS: For Santa Barbara voters, the great unknown and unknowable amid the impenetrable machinations and delegate selection rules is how the presidential contest will manifest down-ballot, notably in our 24th Congressional District race.

Will Trump’s traveling circus boost Republican turnout, and, if so, which GOP wannabe will benefit — Assemblymember Katcho Achadjian or footballer Justin Fareed? Or, intriguingly, might it actually help either Democratic contender, Helene Schneider and Salud Carbajal, amid the political calculus of the top-two primary vote?

One thing is for certain: Once the nominations are settled in the splendid summer convention venues of Philadelphia and Cleveland, California will vote Democratic in November. Unless pigs fly.



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