Politics & Policy

Super Tuesday Super State

Golden State primary primer.

With the largest bloc of Super Tuesday delegates in both parties, California is enjoying a flash of political significance. Many Americans know the state only through our Hollywood celebrities and natural disasters. (There is a lot of overlap between the two.) Accordingly, it’s useful to list several things that everyone should remember about California politics.

First, for many Californians, the election has already ended. In the 2006 gubernatorial primary, mail ballots accounted for nearly half the vote. This time, we may see a similar postal surge, amounting to some four million votes. And as of last week, officials reckon, 2.3 million of these ballots had come in. Last-minute news stories or ad blitzes will have limited effect, since so much of the vote is already in the box. (California law does not let mail voters take a mulligan.)

Second, while vote totals are psychologically important, presidential nominations hinge on delegate counts. Both parties may see a mismatch between vote shares and delegate shares. Republicans choose most delegates through a “winner-take-all” process. In each of the state’s 53 congressional districts, the presidential candidate with the most votes will win three delegates.

Because of gerrymandering and residence patterns, the districts vary wildly in GOP registration. The heavily Democratic 31st District in downtown Los Angeles has 26,724 Republicans, compared with 199,848 in the 48th District (Orange County). Several months ago, a state GOP spokesman told the Associated Press: “It’s a lot easier to communicate with individuals when you need only 8,000 votes to win that area, versus when you might need 80,000 or 90,000 votes to win.” A candidate could grab a disproportionate chunk of delegates by working the hardest where Republicans are scarcest. Mitt Romney has reportedly adopted this tactic.

Democrats use a complex system of proportional representation. Each district gets three to six delegates, according to Democratic performance in past elections. Unless the party adopted the Solomonic solution of splitting individual delegates, it would be impossible to guarantee an exact match between votes and delegate shares in each district. (In a three-delegate district, for instance, a 51-49 percent split would give two thirds of the delegates to the winner.) In a close election, one candidate could get the most votes statewide while the other gets a slightly larger share of district delegates.

Third, independents can vote in the Democratic primary, but not in the Republican one. According to the Field Poll, Hillary Clinton leads among registered Democrats while Barack Obama has built a wide margin among independents. His appeal to non-Democrats is a major reason why the race appears to be so tight.

But the poll also suggests that independents will make up only 13 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. Some liberals think that state party officials have done too little to tell “decline-to-state” voters that they can cast Democratic ballots.

Fourth, in spite of all the talk of California’s diversity, the makeup of the California electorate is a problem for Obama. He is strongest among blacks, but they constitute only a small share of the Democratic primary vote (8 percent in 2006). There are more Latinos, but they favor Clinton.

The Californians who show up at the polls tend to be older and less diverse than the population as a whole. In California’s political rainbow, dominant colors are gray and white. Senator Clinton has received some unkind coverage because of her wrinkles. But there’s gold in those facial lines. The California electorate can relate to the aging process.

Fifth, while the state’s most famous Republican takes some liberal positions, its registered Republicans lean rightward. That tilt is an opportunity for Romney. On the other hand, California is home to many veterans (27 percent of the GOP primary vote in 2000) and dozens of large military installations. As in Florida, the khaki vote would favor McCain.

Sixth and last, Schwarzenegger’s endorsement of John McCain has scant effect. He could have made a big difference several months ago, when McCain badly needed his fundraising ability. But the governor waited until the polls turned in McCain’s favor and the money started coming in anyway.

McCain is not ahead because Schwarzenegger supports him. Schwarzenegger supports him because he’s ahead.

– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.

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