Politics & Policy

Why Nobody Knows How California’s Critical Primary Will Play Out

(Mark Wilson/Getty)

What, exactly, does a California Republican look like? The question is now a subject of heated debate, and the answer may very well determine the outcome of this historic GOP primary.

California hasn’t played a decisive role in choosing the Republican nominee since 1964, when it broke for Barry Goldwater over Nelson Rockefeller in a contest so close that Rockefeller went on to protest the results at the convention in San Francisco. This year, California’s Republican voters are set to make an equally momentous decision: The state’s 172 delegates will either put Donald Trump over the top and deliver him the nomination, or allow Ted Cruz to force a contested convention in July.

As in 1964, the race that will culminate in California is also a battle for the ideological soul of the Republican party. Goldwater’s nomination ensured the GOP would be a vessel for conservatism. On June 7, California’s 5 million registered Republicans will decide whether it remains so.

California’s primary comes at a time when the number of registered Republicans in the state has dwindled. High tax rates and a declining economy have led businessmen and entrepreneurs elsewhere. “Our base is leaving,” says Republican national committeeman Shawn Steel. “We export Republicans.”

The phenomenon has created a gulf between core party activists and the state’s rank-and-file Republicans. The former are by and large traditional conservatives who prefer Cruz to Trump, but there is considerable disagreement as to the ideological makeup of the latter, those whom Steel calls “Walmart moms.” The heated battles that have taken place in so many places across the country since 2010 have hit California so infrequently that its ideological temperature has rarely been measured, at least on the Republican side. Given its size, its varying geography, and its diverse population — coastal cities to the West, arid farmland to the East, plus large Vietnamese and Hispanic populations — it also presents political campaigns with a complex landscape, essentially several different states within a state. All of these factors have left political onlookers scratching their heads six weeks out from the crucial contest, unsure which candidate will prevail in California — and go on to take the nomination.

RELATED: Why Cruz Is Going All-In on Indiana

Trump boasts a 17-point lead in the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, and though just a handful of public polls have been conducted over the last month, there is broad agreement that he will enter California with the upper hand. The fusion of politics and entertainment that the former Apprentice host represents is a built-in advantage, particularly in a state that twice elected Arnold Schwarzenegger governor. “If Trump did nothing at all except get delegates listed with the secretary of state’s office, he would still be very competitive,” says Steel, whose wife Michelle, the Orange County supervisor, has endorsed Cruz.

But there is widespread disagreement about just how substantial Trump’s advantage will be, and how much work Cruz will have to do to counter it. There are those who insist California is natural territory for the Texas senator, while others argue the opposite. “California is not New York, and the Republican party in California is very conservative,” says Robert O’Brien, a Cruz foreign-policy adviser. “It’s a traditional conservative Republican party, and Republicans here are similar to Republicans in the West, in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, where Ted Cruz has done extraordinarily well.”

RELATED: Cruz Outmaneuvering Trump in Battle for Rubio Delegates

It’s true that nearly 70 percent of likely Republican voters in the state call themselves conservatives, according to an August PPIC poll. But it is also true that those same voters have demonstrated a propensity toward candidates with Trump’s temperament and ideological makeup. In the 2014 gubernatorial primary, moderate Republican Neel Kashkari finished just slightly ahead of Assemblyman Tim Donnelly — who founded the California chapter of the Minutemen, the vigilante border-enforcement group, and who was caught in 2012 trying to board an airplane with a loaded handgun in his luggage — before going on to lose to incumbent Jerry Brown in the general election.

Donnelly’s surprisingly strong showing, all things considered, is one data point that has observers claiming Trump has the potential to dominate.

“One of the things that people always get confused about in California is that they don’t draw a distinction between the people who go to the state conventions twice a year and the people who actually vote in Republican primaries,” says Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who managed John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection. California, he says, is simply “not an ideological state that would be favorable to Ted Cruz in its composition and its character.” He predicts Trump will take away more than 150 of the 172 available delegates and secure the nomination in California.

#share#So what would Cruz have to do to eke out a win, and is he capable of doing it?

Cruz has a good team. Until recently, Ron Nehring, who ran the state’s Republican party from 2007 to 2011 and campaigned unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2014, was guiding his effort in California. He has the statewide political contacts necessary to run a serious campaign. Grassroots organization has been a Cruz strength, and California is proving no exception. “We have been organizing in California for nearly a year, and the other team has just barely discovered that California exists,” says a top Cruz aide. One measure of that organization: Cruz has amassed a full delegate slate — that is, his campaign has identified 172 supporters, one for each delegate California awards, willing to travel to the national convention in Cleveland in July to cast a vote for Cruz — plus alternates.

RELATED: Why Cruz Is the Likely Choice at the Convention

Trump, who only recently started organizing in California, is nowhere near completing that task, though his campaign is aware of the stakes. Earlier this month, the businessman brought on veteran Republican strategist Tim Clark to serve as his state political director. Clark has said Trump will be competitive throughout the state, but making that happen in just two months is a monumental task. “How do you go from 0 to 60 in a state like California?” asks GOP strategist Ryan Williams. “You can’t.”

Much of what is sure to be a competitive race may come down to money — and to John Kasich. The way that both will play out remains to be seen, which is a major reason the outcome of the race remains so uncertain.

Advertising in a big state such as California is costly, and the contest is shaping up to be historically expensive.

Advertising in a big state such as California is costly, and the contest is shaping up to be historically expensive. “This is the first time I can remember where candidates are going to be spending more money in California than they raise in California,” says David Bahnsen, a Newport Beach–based investment manager who is fundraising for Cruz. “And the momentum between now and California is going to matter because it’s going to affect their fundraising in California.”

Outside groups have played an important role in the handful of defeats Trump has suffered thus far. The Club for Growth and Our Principles PAC, which are both aligned against Trump, poured $1 million apiece into television advertisements in Wisconsin. The Club has already announced a $1.5 million ad buy in Indiana, which votes on May 3. But if Cruz loses there, it’s unlikely the group’s donors will pony up for a contest in California that’s likely to be several times more expensive.

“Everybody wants to watch these next couple of weeks, particularly Indiana,” says Doug Sachtelben, a spokesman for the Club. “They want to see Indiana, how that goes first, but I do know that there are donors who are very much interested and who realize that it does very much come down to California, assuming that Trump can be stopped at that point.”

RELATED: Why a Contested Convention Favors Cruz

Ultimately, the contest might hinge on whether Cruz and John Kasich can extend their shaky alliance from Indiana, New Mexico, and Oregon into California. That would require far more strategic agility than agreeing to stay out of each other’s way in one state or another; the two camps would have to meticulously divvy up all 53 of the state’s congressional districts, agreeing to campaign only in particular districts. Cruz is likely to perform well in places such as Orange County and Irvine, and in the Central Valley, while Kasich has the potential to rack up delegates in the more liberal Bay Area.

#related#Cruz runs particularly poorly in Northern California, which he has avoided entirely on previous visits despite entreaties from supporters. He is viewed unfavorably among Republicans in liberal enclaves such as San Francisco and Oakland. “Donors there have said they’re virtually in the #NeverTrump crowd, they are registered Republican, and yet they can’t get behind Cruz,” says Bahnsen. All 50 state officials who have endorsed Cruz, according to a list released by his campaign, are from Southern California.

So Kasich’s vote, though small, could prove decisive in blunting Trump in those areas where Cruz can’t compete. And that makes it all the more urgent for Cruz to reach some kind of deal with his rival. “I don’t think Kasich will do well here, but he could tip the balance,” says Jeremy Carl, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, who has endorsed Cruz.

If such a scenario sounds far-fetched given Trump’s current polling lead, it’s worth recalling that 1964 race, in which Nelson Rockefeller was running 13 points ahead until news broke that his mistress had given birth to a son three days before the primary. 2016 has thus far been marked by similarly unexpected events. With little certainty about the outcome in California, there is no sign that the volatility will let up before the June 7 primary. And as in ’64, we may very well see one candidate protesting the results on the convention floor in Cleveland.

— Eliana Johnson is the Washington editor of National Review.

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