The fact that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney can’t seem to cinch this year’s Republican presidential nomination despite his funding advantage and the splintering of his party’s extreme right wing has a lot of California Republicans salivating over the prospect their June 5 primary might actually mean something.
It’s been 40 years since a California presidential primary staged in June had much national significance, but former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for one, has believed since early February that’s how it will be this time.
While no other GOP hopeful did anything but raise money here, Gingrich was on California’s wintertime hustings as his rivals campaigned in places like Ohio and Tennessee, Michigan, and Arizona. Gingrich not only spoke to his party’s California state convention, but also appeared in Tulare County and other Central Valley points.
Gingrich plainly understands the esoteric rules of this state’s Republican primary, which will be done by congressional districts, the winner in each getting three national convention delegates while 10 of state’s 172 convention votes go to the statewide winner and three stay uncommitted.
This means that if the nomination hasn’t been determined by early May, GOP hopefuls should be hitting almost every part of California. Even though only about 12 of the state’s newly-drawn districts are “safe” for Republicans, the other 41 districts that are either mostly Democratic or fairly even-up also elect three delegates each. Smart Republicans, as longtime GOP consultant Rob Stutzman pointed out in February, will work hard for Republican votes in Democratic districts, needing far less money to reach all of them than to contact the larger numbers of GOP voters in Republican districts.
That’s especially true since unlike Democrats, the GOP closes its primary to anyone not registered as a party member, slashing the number of voters any campaign would try to reach.
But even after the mostly inconclusive “Super Tuesday” voting, California’s role remains iffy. Yet to come are delegate-rich primaries in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, Nebraska, Oregon, West Virginia, and Texas, along with New Jersey’s vote, set for the same day as California.
Most of those states resemble places where Romney has won, like New Hampshire, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington, more than states like Georgia and Oklahoma, where Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum topped him by wide margins.
So Romney will have a shot at getting over the 1,144-delegate threshold needed for nomination before getting to California. Only if Santorum and Gingrich can splinter those states as they have some others would California count for much.
This state’s Republican clout is also hurt by its going Democratic in the last four presidential elections, for the GOP allots delegates not only based on a state’s population, but also on how faithful to the party it’s been. That’s why Texas, with less than two-thirds as many voters as California, will get 155 delegates, or 91 percent of California’s total. No one-man, one-vote system here, as the U.S. Supreme Court lets political parties make their own rules for primaries.
There’s one other way California could count heavily: If either Gingrich or Santorum should drop out before June. This would make all subsequent matchups essentially one-on-one, pitting the survivor against Romney, with Texas Congressman Ron Paul probably on the periphery.
But right now, there’s no incentive for Gingrich or Santorum to drop out. Even if one of them did, telling his delegates to go for the survivor, Romney would still have a substantial lead, based on all voting as of March 12. So the dropout could not yet be a kingmaker.
Better to stay in, then, hoping the nomination is not set before the national convention in August, and then try to play the kingmaker later, with delegate votes possibly traded for something like a vice presidential nomination or pet platform planks.
In that scenario, California would be very much in play June 5, but because it now has only about 15 percent of the delegates needed for nomination, rather than the 22 percent it held in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s heyday, it still would not necessarily be decisive. Especially since the state’s delegates now figure to be as splintered as Democratic ones usually are.
Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be kicky to see the first whistle-stop tour of Central Valley towns like Turlock and Madera and Delano and Bakersfield since Harry Truman did it in 1948? Or a similar tour of the Central Coast? Either would let candidates visit multiple districts, helping them reach many voters cheaply. The usual regimen of television advertising in major markets would likely not suffice under this state’s GOP rules.
But all that depends on a whole lot of ifs, and Romney will be doing what he can to make them all moot points weeks before any Californian gets to vote.