Now that Donald Trump has won the Nevada caucuses by a convincing margin, it’s time to ponder what will happen in neighboring California.
Out-of-state pundits often misjudge our political climate. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the most recent Republican to hold statewide office, they reason, so the state GOP will tend to favor more mainstream candidates. They forget that Schwarzenegger became governor only because of the odd rules governing the 2003 recall election, which included 135 candidates from all parties. If he had run in a closed Republican primary, conservative Tom McClintock probably would have defeated him. Indeed, the strong conservative cast of the state GOP primary electorate was the main reason why Schwarzenegger pushed for the adoption of the top-two primary system.
It remains unclear whether the top-two system has had the intended effect of nudging Republican officeholders to the center. In any case, the law does not apply to presidential primaries. Only registered Republicans may vote in the GOP presidential contest on June 7. (The party declined option of allowing no-party-preference voters to take part, as the Democrats do.)
Could Trump win the California primary? Absolutely. Earlier in the season, polls already showed him doing well. A January Field survey showed him running about even with Ted Cruz, and he has surely gained strength since then. Cruz is pitching his appeal to evangelical voters, who are much scarcer in California than in the South. As the Nevada entrance polls confirm, Trump has a broader base, and he is attractive to voters who worry about illegal immigration.
California Republican voters are especially passionate about that issue. They helped propel Proposition 187 to victory in 1994, and a number of them rallied behind the 2014 gubernatorial candidacy of Tim Donnelly, who came out of the Minuteman movement. Although Donnelly had practically no campaign money, moderate Neel Kashkari had to scramble hard to edge him out in the top-two primary.
Unless anti-Trump Republicans coalesce around a single candidate, and until they start hitting Trump hard on his many vulnerabilities, one has to conclude that Trump is the favorite to win the California primary.
The general election, however, is another matter. A Trump nomination will trigger record-high Hispanic turnout for the Democrats. In fact, there are reports that Hispanic noncitizens have started the naturalization process so that they be citizens in time to vote against him. More broadly, if you add up the groups that Trump has insulted – Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, women, people with disabilities – you have a very large majority of the electorate.
Perhaps Trump might also inspire high Republican turnout among working-class whites. But that’s far less likely. To date, his GOP opponents have done a poor job of making the case that Trump – who offshores his clothing jobs to Mexico and China – would be terrible for working people. Democrats won’t make that mistake. They know how to demonize rich Republicans. Just ask Mitt Romney and Carly Fiorina.