Sen. John McCain and his wife Cindy own one condominium in the leafy San Diego suburb of La Jolla and two more in nearby Coronado, even if he has trouble remembering those facts, so you know he spends time in California even when he’s not actively campaigning or raising political money here.
You’d think that might mean he would understand a little bit about this state’s politics. It’s perplexing, therefore, to contemplate the strategies of his California campaign.
Those can be summed up as follows: a) Advocate offshore oil drilling and more nuclear power plants in a drive for energy independence, and b) try to break the Democratic stranglehold on Latino votes. So convinced is McCain that these things will reverse a 24-point springtime poll deficit that in late July he promised a San Francisco audience, “I will win in the state of California.”
Democrats hope he will follow up on this by actually spending money here, funds that therefore wouldn’t be spent in states that are actually up for grabs.
McCain plainly was heartened in late August when his poll deficit dropped to just nine in the state, but that came at the very ebb of Democrat Barack Obama’s tide, a time when national surveys had the two almost precisely even. Most of the McCain improvement, though, came not because of any significant increase in voters favoring him, but from independent voters who previously favored Obama drifting to the undecided column, at least for a time.
Both McCain’s optimism on the polls and his own strategies show a decided lack of realism. Or maybe McCain has spent too much time raising money in inland areas like the Central Valley, where Republicans usually run far more strongly than in coastal California.
Despite population growth there and in the sometimes-Republican Inland Empire region of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the great majority of Californians still live near the coast.
And while one recent poll indicated a softening of opposition to new offshore oil drilling, oil rigs are still not much more popular in coastal California than they’ve been since the disastrous Santa Barbara Channel spill of 1968. With gasoline at about $4 per gallon and usually reliable analysts predicting it may soon top $5, there’s a chance McCain might pick up votes in some other states by advocating an end to the more than 30-year-old moratorium on new oil wells off California beaches.
But this stance probably won’t help him here, even if he did have the guts to go to Santa Barbara itself to advocate new drilling.
And it won’t help him anywhere else if Democrats make voters aware of the essential facts about how long it would take for gasoline derived from any new offshore wells to reach the market (7-10 years, by federal estimate) and how little impact it would have on pump prices.
Renewable energy mandates now being phased in should take effect long before any new coastal oil could affect the marketplace.
So claiming offshore oil drilling is a quick fix simply promotes empty hopes.
As for new nuclear power plants of the current water-cooled variety, one big question in California would be where to put them. Resistance to siting them on any beach would be enormous, both from immediate neighbors and others living along the coast who believe even one plant would presage many more. Yet, coastal locations are about the only place conventionally-designed atomic power plants could be sited in most of this state, because they need huge amounts of cooling water. So that one won’t get far in California, either. Even if it drew some initial support, it will eventually move voters away from McCain.
Then there’s the Republican candidate’s push for Latino votes, which carried him this spring and summer to Mexico, Central America, and several U.S. border towns.
That’s about as unrealistic as his energy promises and proposals. Like previous Republican nominees, McCain hopes to break the Democratic stranglehold on Latino voters.
The current President Bush had moderate success at this in 2004, attracting just under 40 percent of Hispanic votes nationwide. In California, though, he got only about 27 percent. Even Ronald Reagan never won more than 31 percent of Latino voters, despite his overall popularity.
But Latino voters, lately about 18 percent of the California electorate and 11 percent nationally, are the single fastest-growing voter group. McCain knows their rapid emergence as a powerful bloc could sway the entire election if he can cut significantly into their support for Democrats.
It’s true Obama must overcome years of animosity between blacks and Hispanics to maintain the usual Democratic edge. Yet, no major poll so far shows Latino voters making a significant swing to McCain.
So the McCain campaign now seems likely to end up the same as the last four GOP presidential bids, losing California despite brave talk to the contrary.