Could California, with its rich trove of Republican delegates, give billionaire Donald Trump his final push to the GOP presidential nomination?
Could it be where Ted Cruz and John Kasich capture enough delegates to deny Trump a first-ballot nomination victory?
Either scenario is possible with nine weeks remaining before the June 7 primary election.
Likewise, it’s still possible that Trump will have the nomination in the bag by then, making California, once again, a nonfactor in the presidential nomination process.
A recent USC/Los Angeles Times poll has Trump and Cruz virtually tied among California’s likely Republican voters with Kasich a distant third, but thanks to something that happened nearly two decades ago, statewide voter sentiment means little in who wins California’s GOP delegates.
For many years, the California Republican Party had a winner-take-all presidential primary, largely because former Gov. Ronald Reagan was challenging then-President Gerald Ford in 1976 and wanted to ensure that he’d get all of California’s delegate votes as a formidable base.
Republican activist Jon Fleischman, publisher of the influential FlashReport, wrote recently that the California GOP shifted to awarding delegates by congressional district 16 years ago, taking effect only after George W. Bush had won the state’s 2000 primary on his way to the White House.
Only registered Republicans can vote in the state’s primary, and all but 13 of the state’s 172 GOP delegates are awarded by congressional district – three for each of the 53 districts. The statewide winner gets a 10-delegate bonus and the three remaining delegates are the state party chair and two national committee members.
Instead of one statewide race, therefore, California will have 53 mini-races, which will put a premium on turnout and local organizational strength. And the most interesting of those local contests will be in congressional districts dominated by Democrats with relatively few GOP voters to influence.
No matter how many Republican voters a congressional district has, its winner will get three delegate votes. From an organizational standpoint, it’s much easier to reach and influence the few voters in a strongly Democratic district in Oakland or central Los Angeles than it is in a heavily Republican district in Orange County or Placer County.
Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg also notes that the mail voting will begin weeks before election day, which also favors candidates with strong get-out-the-vote organizations.
So far, it appears that Cruz has a head start on Trump and Kasich in the California ground game, but if Trump comes to California with a head of steam from other states, momentum could be a powerful factor.
Another factor is how anti-Trump groups, of which there are many, react when he campaigns in California. As Steinberg notes, if he’s met with heckling by labor unions, women’s rights and gay rights groups, it will energize his base to turn out.
Of course, the liberal activists who denounce the bombastic billionaire as a threat to civilization hope he is the Republican nominee, rather than a less controversial candidate such as Cruz, because Trump is widely seen as the weakest GOP foe. Therefore, they can simultaneously have fun baiting him and helping him win California’s delegates and the party nomination.
California hasn’t been in this position before, so any scenario is possible.