As polls closed in Ohio on Tuesday, California’s presidential primary election could claim life.
Despite Donald Trump’s victories in Florida, North Carolina and Illinois, the Republican front-runner’s loss in Ohio served to prolong his path to the nomination, increasing the likelihood of a competitive contest in California on June 7, if not a contested national convention the following month.
If the race does come down to California, it will be the first time the state’s late-arriving June election has played a decisive role in a presidential primary since the state went for George McGovern as the Democratic nominee in 1972.
Trump could still amass the 1,237 delegates necessary to secure the nomination, as – far less probably – could Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But it will be difficult to achieve before the final day of voting, in five states including California.
“I think we’re at a place where it’s 90 percent on that we’re in play,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist in Sacramento.
In his victory speech in his home state on Tuesday night, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he was preparing to “rent a covered wagon” and “have a big sail and have the wind blow us to the Rocky Mountains and over the mountains to California.”
But Kasich is running far behind Trump and Cruz, and the endorsement of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who fell out of favor with rank-and-file Republicans before leaving office, is unlikely to help him in this state’s primary.
Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who specializes in Latino politics in California, said the state is now likely to be determinative in the race, but that “the trend line is strongly in (Trump’s) direction.”
Trump’s victories on Tuesday left him with more than half of the delegates necessary to win the nomination, and his walloping of Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida – which ended Rubio’s presidential campaign – demonstrated the limitations of anti-Trump efforts.
The latest Field Poll in January put Cruz and Trump in a statistical tie among Republicans in California, with Cruz’s edge – 25 percent to 23 percent – within the poll’s margin of error.
That poll was taken before Trump’s string of successes in early nominating states. More recent, private polling – including by Trump’s opponents – suggests Trump has pushed ahead in California by a slight margin, even as protests of his candidacy have escalated nationally.
“What I think is going on is that a lot of people are very angry,” said pollster Val Smith, a Cruz supporter and emeritus professor at California State University, Sacramento. “It’s become kind of an adult version of a temper tantrum. And they don’t want to think through this, they don’t want to reason, they don’t want to seek solutions. They want everyone to understand that they’re angry, and they’re not going to calm down until that’s understood.”
Still, Trump will need to continue winning consistently in the remaining states to compile the delegates he needs, and for Republicans hoping to deprive Trump of the nomination, California holds promise.
Trump has little organization in California, while Cruz has assembled a network of volunteers in every county. His national spokesman, Ron Nehring, is former chairman of the California Republican Party, and he secured the endorsement of the conservative California Republican Assembly last month.
“Cruz is the only one that’s organizing at this time in the right way,” said Tom Hudson, the group’s president.
California Republicans award nearly all of their 172 delegates by congressional district, three delegates each to the winner in each district. By targeting a relatively small number of Republicans in a liberal district, a better organized candidate could match the success of a Republican with broader appeal.
In coastal or urban areas of California, “a very few Republicans could have a disproportionate influence” on the result, Madrid said. “It’s not like you can win this by just running commercials and an air-wave campaign … Ironically, in the one state which is known for its media-driven campaigns, the one determining factor could be who is building the ground game.”
Far behind Cruz in that effort, Trump supporters in California are agitating to start organizing.
Don Genhart, a Republican activist in Palm Desert, planned last year to open a Trump campaign committee in the Coachella Valley. But when the retired hotel and restaurant owner reached out to the campaign about six weeks ago, he said, he was told “it was too early.”
Genhart said, “He’ll probably remedy that before too long, I would imagine. He’s pretty knowledgeable, and he’s got good advisers.”
Despite its status as a major donor state, California has often been relegated to the sidelines in presidential primary elections. This is not only because of its late spot on the primary calendar, but because California’s size and distance from other states makes campaigning here difficult.
Four years ago, California Republicans held out slim hope for a contested primary election as late as March. But Mitt Romney dispatched his rivals, stood as the presumptive nominee for nearly two months and clinched the nomination a week before Californians voted.
This year, even if no candidate holds a statistical lock on the nomination by the time of California’s primary election, it is possible that changes in the race – a candidate dropping out, for example – will once again render California insignificant. It could be a month or more before Californians know for sure, said Beth Miller, a Republican consultant in Sacramento.
“The question really is, where are things going to be in May coming into California?” she said. “Is California just simply going to be like it usually is, just not being of any consequence?”
In 2008, when California moved its primary to February, the state drew a competitive race, with the kind of rallies and advertising Californians are now accustomed to only on cable TV.
But the significance of the state was unclear. Hillary Clinton, who carried California, did not win the nomination that year. Republican John McCain did.
On the Democratic side this year, Bernie Sanders appears likely to remain in the race through June, despite Clinton’s widening lead.
Sanders has drawn thousands of supporters to his rallies, including in California. Even if the Vermont senator falls further behind Clinton, “he does have a position in terms of pushing the party” on his more liberal messages, said Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc.
Karen Skelton, a Sacramento-based political strategist who supports Clinton and worked in her husband’s White House, offered a less charitable assessment of Sanders’ prospects, predicting he will be viewed as a “cranky protester more than a mesmerizing revolutionary” by the time the race reaches California.
“This is Clinton country,” she said. “It has been for years. And it’s hard in a state this big to spark a revolution, which is what essentially he would need to do to really play at a meaningful level.”