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California’s Primary Kept Clinton Going

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/clinton-nice-barabara-kinney.jpgSen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) (Barbara Kinney)

On Tuesday, June 3, California will hold its state primary. Not many Americans—or even Californians — realize this. The Big One — not the major earthquake the state expects, but its presidential primary — was on Feb. 5, part of that electoral front-loading called Super-Duper Tuesday.

The state Democratic leaders championed splitting the presidential contests off from the congressional and state races in June. They argued that California, the most populous and diverse state, has, for the last few decades, weighed in on the presidential nominating process too late to matter. (It didn’t hurt the legislators’ motivation that a February election would allow them to qualify early for the ballot an initiative dear to their hearts— easing term limits. It lost.)

But whether the Golden State’s votes are cast early, late or in the middle of the primary season, because of its size and political wealth, California has huge clout. The timing of the state’s primary this year has indeed made a difference in how the presidential campaign scenario played out.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took California’s GOP presidential primary with 42.3 percent of the vote to Mitt Romney’s 34.6 percent and Mike Huckabee’s 11.7 percent. McCain’s victory in California, where he won 155 delegates — roughly 90 percent of the total up for grabs in the Golden State — basically sealed the GOP nomination for him.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s victory over Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in California did much to keep her campaign alive. The final election eve Field poll showed Obama, who had been trailing Clinton by high single-digits, surging within two percentage points of the New York senator. Clinton’s 9-point win over Obama (51.5 percent to 43.2 percent) in the Golden State bolstered her claim that only she could deliver “must-win” big states. Her 420,000 plus vote margin helped her “I’m winning the popular vote” strategy.

In fact, a strong argument can be made that, without the numbers cushion that Clinton got from her California victory — including 204 pledged delegates, 38 more than Obama won — she might not even have made it all the way to June 3.

But what if California’s presidential primary election had remained on the June ballot, and not moved to Super Tuesday? With the Democratic race not yet wrapped up, it’s now clear that a late-deciding California, with its trove of 440 delegates, coulda been a contender.

Here’s why: When California voted on Feb. 5, Clinton was far better known in the state than the new guy, Obama — despite his recent dramatic win in Iowa. IOWA? Californians don’t pay much attention to Iowans. Meanwhile, the Golden State’s media seemed more entranced by the early Huckabee surge in the GOP race.

In addition, there has been a long cozy relationship between President Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and much of creative Hollywood, which translated into good, old-fashioned fund-raising capability — and, in the end, a lot of inconvenient maxing-out, as well. Post-Iowa, Obama’s Internet-savvy financing drill was just beginning to power through, ready to leave Clinton’s old-school, “big donor” strategy in the dust.

According to a Field poll released Friday, however, Californians now prefer Obama over Clinton, by 51 percent to 38 percent — almost a mirror image of the state’s primary results. The poll’s director, Mark DiCamillio, told the Sacramento Bee, “a lot has happened in other states and there appears to be a consensus view that Obama has the delegates he needs to be the likely nominee.” He added, “Californians are jumping onto the bandwagon and saying they’re likely to support Obama.”

There’s little reason to believe that dynamic would be any different if Californians were just now marching to the polls. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt.

As Obama became better known in the weeks after Super Tuesday, the polls began to shift. A PPIC poll taken in early March showed six of 10 California likely voters had a favorable opinion of Obama (61 percent), and only 45 percent viewed Clinton favorably. Among Democrats, 78 percent had a positive opinion of Obama, and 74 percent viewed Clinton favorably.

The latest PPIC survey, taken this month, again shows Obama with the highest favorability rating among the presidential candidates (59 percent among likely voters). Clinton still has a high unfavorable rating (51 percent vs. 46 percent favorable). In the state Clinton won four months ago, likely Democratic voters now give Obama a 78 percent favorable rating, while Clinton’s is down 5 points, to 69 percent.

California general election voters, according to the PPIC survey, favor Obama over McCain by 17 points (54 percent to 37 percent), an increase of 8 points from March. They favor Clinton over McCain by a smaller margin of 12 points (51 percent to 39 percent), an increase of 9 points. (The new Field poll shows both Obama and Clinton with 17-point leads over McCain.)

The bottom line is that California did matter on Feb. 5, when its presidential primaries closed the deal for McCain and blocked Obama from KO’ing Clinton. And if California were in its old post position, bringing up the rear of the primary season, today the Golden State — not Michigan and Florida — would be the center of the Democratic universe.

So California approaches June 3 and the wind-down of the primary calendar with a whimper, not a roar. But, this state is not like Iowa and New Hampshire. For most Californians—other than politicians with their own agendas—it’s no big deal where the state falls in the primary season.

Californians’ self-esteem is not at stake. The state is too big not to matter.

*Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior scholar at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. *

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