California Here He Comes

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


Let’s stipulate that the GOP’s Trump boom may fizzle long before California’s June 2016 Presidential primary rolls around —remember Michele Bachmann and the pizza man?  But The Donald has the resources, the bravado and the profile, potentially, to stay in the race through the Primary season.   And the state’s GOP presidential Primary might even matter—for the first time in a very long while.

Nationally, the Republicans have become the party of alienation. A huge chunk of the GOP’s rank-and-file voters appears to loathe President Obama, but they are not crazy about anybody or anything in Washington either.  Donald Trump has tapped into that sour mood.  No other candidate has yet been able to jump out of the GOP presidential pack, which now outnumbers the entire roster of an NBA team. Conventional wisdom is that Trump’s act will lose steam and that one or more “plausible” candidates will emerge from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.  However, this election cycle is far from conventional.  Certainly, it may take more than the early-state GOP caucuses and primaries to winnow the field. Trump could easily emerge from the early going as the top vote and delegate getter, leaving the other candidates to jockey for position over a longer haul.  That means that later primaries and caucuses may take on real importance, and the GOP race could actually play out until the June 7, 2016 California Primary.

Trump’s staying power is still a matter of conjecture.  He is obviously having the time of his life and responds to every perceived slight or criticism with a mouthful of venom or braggadocio.  Republican candidates and leaders have to think carefully about how hard they want to come down on The Donald publicly, because there is always the danger that Trump will pick up his marbles and run as an independent—virtually locking up the White House for the Democrats.  His refusal in the Fox debate to disavow an independent run was the political equivalent of brandishing a live grenade at the Republican establishment. In a smart political move, the California GOP is not screaming to bump The Donald from the June ballot unless he forsakes an Independent run.

Nonetheless, if the race is still undecided by next June, the California primary may be where the GOP’s gloves come all off in attacking Trump. There would be less risk in offending The Donald then, since it would be very late in the game for him to mount an independent campaign and to qualify for a slew of state ballots, even with his personal war chest.

California, the nation’s most populous state, will produce a treasure trove of 172 Republican delegates, (roughly 14 % of the delegate votes needed for nomination at the GOP convention next July).  Most of these delegates (159) are selected on a winner-take-all basis—three from each of the State’s 53 congressional districts. Only Republicans will be eligible to vote in California’s GOP Presidential primary.

The Golden State is so big that candidate visibility and media exposure, paid and earned, are likely to be determinative. California is also a place where the SuperPACS can play big time. By the time this state’s Republicans vote in June, Trump’s oversized profile could end up being a big advantage or disadvantage.

None of the GOP presidential candidates is a particularly good fit for California.  This has never been Bush territory and it seems unlikely that a mid-western governor, like Walker or Kasich, would resonate all that well; their success stories—let alone their style–hardly measure up to the Jerry Brown show.  Marco Rubio may have the media skills to campaign here, but it is hard to see where his immigration dance and hardline social positions will play in the Golden State.  Carly Fiorina has the California pedigree, but her thrashing by Barbara Boxer in 2010 hardly speaks to electoral strength.  No doubt opposition researchers from both political parties are already perusing Boxer’s attack ads and other expositions of Florina’s rocky career at the helm of Hewlett-Packard.

Even if the race narrows in the spring, it is likely that most of the current field will still have their names on the ballot—splitting up the non-Trump vote.  It is possible to imagine Donald Trump getting a third of the primary vote and the largest share of delegates, given the winner take all by congressional district rule.

With or without Donald Trump in the mix, odds are still against the GOP nomination being in doubt by the time California Republicans cast their ballots.   All we can do now is to watch and wait to see if the circus comes to town next June.

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