California’s presidential primary election comes at the very end of the selection process – June 7, 2016; and almost always, the national candidates have usually been chosen by then, rendering California’s presidential primary election meaningless. There have been efforts to move the primary to an earlier date, but the tinkering hasn’t seemed to take hold; and we are back to a late primary again this presidential election cycle. California’s Presidential primary has not always been meaningless, however. In 1968, Robert Kennedy won a hard fought Democratic primary election against sitting Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, but was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan immediately after making his victory speech and uttering the words “On to Chicago” (the location of the Democratic Convention) at the old and long gone Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd., near downtown Los Angeles. In 1976, Ronald Reagan was not contested in California by sitting President Gerald Ford; but the primary was not meaningless because of the huge load of delegates Reagan won in the state’s primary (I was one of them), that when combined with a big victory in Texas’ winner-take-all primary, gave Reagan the encouragement to keep up the fight to the convention with just shy of the total number of delegates needed to win the nomination that year.
Today, California’s GOP presidential primary delegates are not exactly distributed “winner take all.” A small portion of the delegates to the Republican National Convention are selected by the candidate who wins the state as a whole, but the majority of delegates are selected by who wins in a Congressional District. And a Democratic-dominated Congressional District, such as Congressional Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s in San Francisco, will send as many delegates to the GOP convention as a Republican-dominated Congressional District, such as Congressional Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s district in Kern County.
I really wonder how Donald Trump will do in a California primary if the Republican Party has not settled on a nominee by next June. Trump has done well in the national polls over the last two weeks, despite what many pundits consider a number of gaffes, and has even taken the lead in a number of polls. His support looks like it may now be peaking at around 20% to 25% of the vote nationally – enough to be at or near the top in the current crowded GOP field of 16 candidates. But we don’t really know what Trump’s support is today in California. Last March, I tested opinions of likely voters in next year’s California Republican primary in my own poll; and Scott Walker walked away with the lead at 20%, followed by Ben Carson with 10.7% and Jeb Bush at 10.5%. But at that point, Trump hardly made a showing, with just less than 1% of the vote matched against 15 other potential candidates.
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It seems likely that Trump has greatly lifted his support in California by now. But where is he today in the polls in the Golden State? And if the Republicans are still deadlocked with a load of candidates by next June, could California become the “make-or-break” state for the GOP?
All three major polling organizations in California certainly aren’t helping us with an answer. The USC/LA Times poll has not publicly published a survey of California voters since last April according to their website. The Public Policy Institute of California’s last survey was in May, and it did not include any questions about Presidential candidates. And the venerable Field Poll has not measured California GOP public opinion on a Presidential candidate since last May. Field’s results in May confirmed my own poll’s results two months earlier showing Trump with less than 1% support at that time, with Bush, Rubio and Walker in virtual ties at around 10-11% each.
I think testing Trump’s support in California matters, as I will explain below; and I also think the major polling agencies are intentionally soft-peddling GOP presidential polling not only because of California’s well-known blue state status and late primary, but also because they don’t want to contribute to the Trump road-show. My sense is that Trump has likely captured much of the imagination of California’s “tea-party” voters, those independents and Republicans who can sway around 25% of the GOP vote in a primary. This is the same voter bloc that gave tea-party oriented Gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly a third-place finish with 643,236 votes (14.8% of all candidates in the “open” primary) to Neel Kashkari’s 839,767 votes (19.4%) against Jerry Brown.
Tim Donnelly is no Donald Trump. Yet he really did make an impact capturing a strain of California voters, angered over illegal immigration, with a greatly under-funded campaign. Moreover, highly unreported is the fact that Donnelly was THE leading GOP vote-getter in the Governor’s primary in many counties throughout the state that will be sending delegates to the Republican National Convention. Donnelly did not best Kashkari in all the hard-core conservative southern California counties near the border with Mexico, but he won San Bernardino and Imperial counties; and he scored big in North State counties, around Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa’s district where dissatisfaction with government runs high, namely Butte, Del Norte, Glenn, Lake, Lassen, Nevada, Trinity, Tehama, Siskiyou, Sierra, Shasta, Plumas, and Modoc. He drew to a tie in the central valley county of Merced, won nearby Mariposa, and took the central valley prize of Kern County (in Congressional Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s Congressional District no less); and Donnelly surprisingly even topped Kashkari in a clean-sweep of the state’s top wine country counties of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. Donnelly beat Kashkari, who was considered the GOP establishment’s candidate, in the central coast counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, and San Benito, the Bay Area counties of Alameda and Contra Costa and even won most of the handful of GOP voters in San Francisco, in Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional District!
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Therefore, since California assigns its GOP delegates mostly by who wins in one of the state’s 53 Congressional districts, if Donald Trump was able to capture just the “Tim Donnelly” vote in California, scattered as it is in deep pockets throughout the state, it is quite possible that Trump could emerge from the primary with a huge cache and perhaps even the majority of delegates, even if he narrowly lost the statewide total to a Jeb Bush or Scott Walker. Imagine that number skyrocketing if Trump could put together a better campaign and message than Donnelly did, and with even just 25% of the vote sweep all the state’s delegates in a crowded field. Like Ronald Reagan did in 1976, Trump might surely be encouraged with a big late victory to go on to the Cleveland convention and see his campaign on to whatever ending it has in store there.
This commentary originally appeared at CaliforniaPoliticalReview.com.
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website.