Love him or detest him, there’s no denying that Donald Trump is a driving force in this year’s crazy campaign.
The “Trump effect” is a huge wild card in California’s June 7 primary – dealing uncertainty all the way down to local races.
While Trump didn’t come up during the Sacramento mayoral debate Monday, his presence on the ballot could still affect the outcome. Some voters could care much more about the boorish billionaire than any issue that Angelique Ashby or Darrell Steinberg talked about.
While local races are officially nonpartisan, they’re typically low-turnout contests that can sometimes turn on a relatively small number of votes. So as mail ballots began going out Monday, local candidates and campaigns wonder if Trump will boost Republican turnout or draw a different mix of voters than in a normal presidential primary.
Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, brags all the time about all the new voters he’s bringing into the Republican fold. Not so much in California, where the registration numbers this year show more of an anti-Trump surge, plus enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side.
Many more Democrats, young people and Latinos are among the more than 850,000-plus Californians who have registered in the first three months of 2016, double the number in 2012.
Yet, as political consultant Paul Mitchell points out, signing up to vote is very different from actually casting a ballot.
Will new Democrats who registered in opposition to Trump bother to go to the polls since they can’t vote against him in the closed Republican primary? Or will they stay home until November?
Are new Republican voters more likely than Democrats to cast ballots, either in support or protest of Trump? Or will his impact be softened with his remaining rivals dropping out, though it was too late to take their names off the ballot?
Mitchell told me that with Trump locking up the nomination before California’s primary, he expects Republicans to turn out in more traditional numbers.
He says there could be more fluctuation in turnout on the Democratic side with more suspense between Clinton and Sanders, who is likely to have a string of wins coming into California, though Clinton is still far ahead in delegates.
Sacramento is a decidedly Democratic city, both the major candidates for mayor are Democrats and both are backing Clinton.
Councilwoman Ashby, however, has been endorsed by some big-name Republicans and is counting on GOP support. Steinberg, a former state Senate leader, is far more the candidate of the Democratic establishment. He announced Monday that Gov. Jerry Brown is endorsing him.
At the start of the year, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by nearly 69,000 – 52 percent to 20 percent. As of Monday, more than 6,400 Democrats had joined the voter rolls this year, to about 1,100 Republicans. With 1,600 additional voters with no party preference, there are more than 51,000 – nearly 8,000 more than registered Democrats.
So the pool of new voters seems to favor Steinberg.
He says that while he expects to do well with Republicans as well, it’s a net positive for him that Democratic turnout may be higher than a normal June primary. But “it’s very unpredictable,” he says.
He’s trying to win outright in June and avoid a runoff in November, so it’s possible that a small number of votes could make a difference.
Ashby says she hopes for high turnout, because that benefits the city. In both June 2008 and June 2012, there were about 69,000 total votes cast in the mayor’s race.
You’d think there would be more total votes this year. Then again, less-informed, less-committed new voters who are focused on the presidential race may not get all the way down the ballot to local races.
In Sacramento, the mayor’s race is on the third page of a cluttered four-page ballot. Depending on where voters live, it shares that page with a congressional race, a state Assembly election, a City Council race and a school board race.
In Placer County, Michael Babich, who has the backing of local GOP groups, is counting on high Republican turnout in his bid to oust incumbent Jennifer Montgomery in the District 5 race for county supervisor.
While Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the district by about 4,400 registered voters as of Jan. 5, the district added 433 Democrats and 269 Republicans by mid-April.
Babich told me that even though Trump is the presumptive nominee, his energized supporters will still come out because they want him to win by a big margin. Or at least Babich hopes so.
But he also says that local elections are won or lost based on “credentials and ideas, not coattails.”
Probably so, but this election has been full of surprises. Who knows? Maybe the Trump wild card will be a big deal, even in the most local of races.