Sunday, June 5, 2016

California, Here They Are

It has always struck me as odd.

For most of my lifetime, California has been the largest state (by population) in the country. In November, the winner in California (and that is generally expected to be the Democrat; California hasn't voted for a Republican since Ronald Reagan was preparing to leave the White House in 1988) will win — by virtue of that solitary victory — one–fifth of the electoral votes needed to capture the presidency.

That is why many Democrats remain confident of winning this year. Throw in other large states that have been voting reliably for Democrats during that same period — New York, Michigan, Illinois — and those that have been voting almost as often for Democrats but usually by narrower margins — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida — and Democrats don't feel that they will need to win many of the mid–sized and smaller states to secure victory in the election.

(Any stock investor will tell you, though, that past results are no guarantee of future behavior.)

Yes, California is at the very heart of Democrats' general election battle plan.

And yet it is a virtual afterthought in the primaries.

The biggest reason for that, I suppose, is the fact that California's presidential primary is nearly always scheduled for the very end of primary season. By that time, party nominees have already been decided — usually — and California voters merely rubber–stamp the decision that has been made by others.

It seems to me that the last time California's Republican presidential primary had any relevance to the outcome of the race for the nomination was in 1976 when California's former governor, Ronald Reagan, needed to win there to remain viable in his race against President Gerald Ford. Reagan did win the primary by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, but Ford still won the nomination.

Democrats moved California's primary up to what was known as "Super Duper Tuesday" in March 2008 so the state could wield greater influence on the nomination. But that was the year of Hillary Clinton's duel with Barack Obama that went down to the first week of June before Clinton conceded defeat.

Clinton won California's primary in 2008, but nearly two dozen states and territories voted that day. When the smoke cleared, Obama had secured more delegates than Clinton and was on his way to the nomination — although, as I said, the campaign went on for three more months before Clinton finally conceded what most observers already knew.

Before that, I guess you would have to go back to 1968 — when primaries were not yet the preferred method for selecting delegates — to find a California primary that was expected to influence the nomination — even though it, too, was held at the end of that year's primary season. In 1968, the presumptive front–runner, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated after claiming victory over Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the California primary, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who entered no primaries that year, won the nomination the old–fashioned way — behind the scenes.

The concept of voters actually playing a role in the parties' presidential nomination processes is fairly new in the American experience. It is not how most of our presidents — the great and the not–so–great alike — won their parties' nominations.

But it is the expectation of modern voters that they will be allowed a legitimate opportunity to have a say in the nomination process. (Considering that this has apparently produced two unpopular nominees this year, both parties may want to re–evaluate how they choose their nominees when this election is over.)

And expectations have always played an important role in presidential politics.

Those expectations have shifted dramatically in California.

A little over a month ago, polls were showing Clinton with a double–digit lead over Sanders in California. Polls continued to show her comfortably in front as recently as two weeks ago. Expectations in early May were that Clinton would win easily in California and become the presumptive nominee. Thus, the Clinton campaign scheduled stops elsewhere in the weeks before California, and the candidate turned her attention to her presumptive Republican rival instead of her challenger within her own party.

But in a new poll released today — two days before the primary — Clinton's lead over Sanders is down to two percentage points, which is well within the poll's margin of error. In recent days, Clinton has canceled planned stops in other places and returned to California to woo the voters in the Golden State.

As CBS News observes in its report on today's poll, Clinton does not need to win California outright — or New Jersey, Montana, New Mexico or the Dakotas, all of whom hold their primaries on Tuesday as well. She only needs to keep adding to her delegate total.

But Sanders voters — at least the ones in California — indicate that they are not motivated so much by a belief that Sanders can still win the nomination as they are by the desire to influence the direction of the party.

And running out the clock is not the kind of finish Clinton's supporters were hoping for. They were looking for a Secretariat–like 31–length win, not a photo finish in which she limped across the finish line barely ahead of a 74–year–old socialist from Vermont. Especially with the help of so–called superdelegates who are obligated to no one.

Clinton's supporters were expecting a decisive, double–digit win in California — and, given the unpredictability of modern American politics, that may still happen, but the record of this campaign has been that Sanders has tended to underperform in polls leading up to primaries and then overperform (in the context of those polls) on Election Day. Clinton has won in more places than Sanders has but, outside of the South (and its high population of blacks, most of whom have been in Clinton's corner), typically by margins far lower than are expected from candidates who are thought to be historically inevitable.

Clinton needs a solid victory on Tuesday in the largest state in the union to build pressure for Sanders to withdraw in the sake of party unity — but, as Sanders insists there will be a contested convention in Philadelphia next month, his withdrawal after Tuesday's primaries does not seem likely.

Another narrow Clinton victory certainly won't change that.

Hillary's husband, a much more gifted politician than his wife will ever be, would know that the wise thing to do is eliminate your in–party opponent before turning your sights on your general election rival. Learning that lesson now could come at a high price.

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