Finger Pointing Won’t Be Enough to Win California

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

Those poor souls who spent a rainy Saturday morning watching cable news were treated to stereophonic whining– a grievance medley by President Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders.

During his two-plus hour rant at CPAC, President Trump lashed out at Democrats, Robert Mueller, Jeff Sessions, the media and a cast of thousands. Meanwhile, Senator Sanders railed against “the billionaire class”, “insurance companies” and “drug companies.” Each pol delighted his crowd of core supporters with colorful “us versus them” rhetoric. But it remains to be seen whether the country at large is ready for four more years of blaming and shaming.   Certainly California, with its early Presidential primary coming up, would not seem to be fertile ground for the politics of finger pointing.

Clearly, California is not Trump territory. In 2016, he lost the Golden State to Hillary Clinton by more than 4 million votes. Without Hillary’s California victory margin, Trump would have carried the nation’s popular vote. The President’s job approval rating in California remains a couple of notches below abysmal. In next year’s General Election, Trump probably has a better chance of carrying North Korea than he does California.

That said, what little remains of the Republican electorate in the Golden State is sufficiently loyal to the Donald that his chances of being successfully primaried next March are minimal.

On the Democratic side, California’s reputation as a liberal bastion oversells the reality. In both 2008 and 2016, Hillary Clinton outpolled her opponents in the California Primary, even though Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders were perceived to be on her left.

Former State Senator Kevin DeLeon tried to challenge U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein from the left in 2018, but he fell far short. The seven Democrats who captured Republican Congressional seats in the state last year all ran pretty much as moderates.

The most successful California political figure in the past thirty plus years has been former Governor Jerry Brown, who mostly campaigned and governed from the center. Brown has prided himself on “paddling a little to the left and a little to the right”. It is Brown’s formula of tightfistedness and focus on a few big issues (i.e. climate change) that has resonated with California voters. If he were ten years younger, Brown would be the obvious front-runner in the presidential race in California and, possibly, everywhere else.

Since the clock can’t be turned back, it looks like the state’s Democratic Presidential Primary next year will be quite a melee. Former Vice President Joe Biden (if he runs), Senator Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, maybe Beto O’Rourke and who knows who else will be vying for California’s treasure chest of convention delegates. It seems unlikely that a grievance candidate will carry the day. Voters will be looking for a candidate who can defeat Trump and will offer positive change, not just retribution.

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