[AllPolitics - States]

Steps to the Nomination: California
March 26, 1996

By Rhodes Cook/Congressional Quarterly

California's leap forward on the primary calendar from early June to late March is not as dramatic as it first looked. Because other states also rescheduled, the Golden State wound up trading a spot at the end of the nominating calendar for one that is still in the second half.

And now that Bob Dole has all the delegates he needs to lock up the nomination, the California primary is practically moot. Pat Buchanan cannot even mount much of a "protest" candidacy here, since the GOP primary is still winner-take-all. The state's harvest of 163 delegates is equal to more than 15 percent of the number needed to win the Republican nomination.

That one fact meant that self-starting "favorite son" candidate, Gov. Pete Wilson, started his ill-fated campaign for the presidential nomination with plenty of competition in his home state. But he probably would have anyway, as polls in 1995 have shown Californians unenthused about his candidacy and ready to consider alternatives in a Republican primary.

California At A Glance...

Population (1994 estimate): 31,430,697
White 79%
Black 8%
Asian 12%
(Hispanic 28%)
Percentage of U.S. population: 12.07%
Growth rate:
Since 1980: 32.8%
Since 1990: 5.6%
GOP presidential wins since 1968: 6 out of 7
1992 presidential vote:
Bush: 33%
Clinton: 46%
Perot: 21%
Democrats 6,886,792 (49%)
Republicans 5,232,670 (37%)
Other 2,170,946 (14%)

Wilson's situation contrasted with that of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who always could count on winning California's rich lode of GOP delegates before he launched any of his four presidential bids. In 1968 and 1984, Reagan ran unopposed in the Republican primary. In 1980, he faced only token opposition. And in 1976, he dispatched President Gerald R. Ford by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1.

But Reagan's sunny optimism matched the upbeat mood of the state, awash in defense industry dollars and still seen as offering elbow room for any and all newcomers.

Times changed and Wilson had to be a "bad times" governor. Defense downsizing has sent the state economy into a spiral at the same time that California has kept growing with immigrants, both legal and illegal. Faced with a series of budget crises, Wilson at one point was forced to issue IOUs instead of state paychecks.

Hot-button issues abound in California and Wilson was not shy about pushing them. In 1994, he tied his re-election campaign to Proposition 187, which denied illegal immigrants all public services but emergency health care. Both Wilson and the ballot measure triumphed by more than a million votes.

Last year, Wilson launched an assault on the state's longstanding affirmative action programs, many of which he had supported as governor, as a senator and as mayor of San Diego. But California conservatives have never been comfortable with their pro-abortion rights governor. In winning renomination in 1994, he lost more than one-third of the Republican primary vote to a little-known computer magnate, Ron Unz.

Unz even beat Wilson in three small counties in Northern California and drew over 40 percent in several others. Among them was Orange County, the bastion of Sun Belt conservatism and home to the state's other Republican presidential entry, Robert K. Dornan.

If he is no Reagan, WilsonŽs career in some ways parallels that of another Californian, Richard M. Nixon. A pragmatic politician, Nixon also had trouble with the right wing of the California Republican Party. In his unsuccessful try for governor in 1962, Nixon too lost more than one-third of the vote to a little-known conservative challenger.

That contest set the stage for the California GOP's most ideologically charged presidential primary two years later between Nelson A. Rockefeller and Barry M. Goldwater. Rockefeller represented the party's long-dominant Eastern wing; Goldwater, the ascendant conservative forces of the Sun Belt.

Goldwater won by only 52 percent to 48 percent, but his narrow victory had far-reaching ramifications. Not only did it essentially wrap up the 1964 Republican nomination for Goldwater, but it heralded the triumph of conservatives in their battle for control of the national party.

California has also had a few significant primaries on the Democratic side. In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy scored a narrow victory over Eugene J. McCarthy that many thought positioned Kennedy to capture the Democratic nomination had he not been gunned down on primary night in Los Angeles. In 1972, George McGovern also won a narrow victory over Hubert H. Humphrey that gave McGovern the delegates he needed to stave off an "ABM" ("Anybody But McGovern") movement at the convention.

But as the number of primaries grew after 1972, the importance of California at the end of the process was diminished. Voter interest in the primary has declined accordingly. More Republicans voted in the 1964 Goldwater- Rockefeller primary than in the party's 1992 contest between George Bush and Patrick J. Buchanan, even though the number of registered California Republicans had increased by more than 2 million in the meantime. Similarly, the number of ballots cast in the 1992 Democratic contest between Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown was the party's lowest in a presidential primary since 1964.

California's biggest boom years may be over, but it continues to grow in the 1990s at a rate of more than 400,000 new residents per year, according to Census Bureau estimates. If sustained through the decade, that would be enough to add five or more House seats to the state's current total of 52.

In much of the Sun Belt, population growth has been synonymous with Republican Party growth. But the growing numbers have been less of an asset to the GOP in California, where the population has increasingly taken on a rainbow hue. Since the 1930s, Democrats have maintained a wide voter registration edge that has helped them hold their own in California even as their party had hard times nationally.

Historically, California elections often have pitted the state's north against its south. But that has become an unfair contest, with most of the population growth concentrated in the south. California has eight counties with at least 1 million residents, and five are in Southern California (including Los Angeles County, which alone boasts more than 9 million residents).

For more than a quarter-century, Southern California's GOP has had a distinctly conservative cast. In the pivotal 1964 primary, Rockefeller swept the San Francisco Bay Area and built up a big lead in the north. But Goldwater more than offset that in Southern California to win the primary by nearly 70,000 votes

The tenor of Southern California Republicanism had not changed that much by 1976, as Reagan swept Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties with at least two-thirds of the vote. Ford carried just two counties: San Francisco and its affluent suburban neighbor, Marin.

The north-south split was muted a bit in the 1992 GOP primary, as Buchanan failed to draw more than one-third of the vote in a single California county.

Republicans had won California in every presidential election since 1964, but Bush never cultivated the state and polls during the summer showed he would even have trouble carrying Orange County. With his prospects bleak, Bush conceded the state long before the November election, paving the way for a 1.5-million vote Clinton landslide.

Clinton has assiduously courted California ever since, leading Wilson to argue that it would take a proven California vote-getter like himself to woo the Golden State back into the Republican column. He has some history on his side. The seven times since 1952 that a Californian has been on the GOP ticket for president or vice president, Republicans have carried the state each time. When no Californian has been on the GOP ticket, the Republican record has been only 2-2.

The California Rules...

For California Republicans, the good news is the state's earlier primary date, late March rather than early June. The bad news is that they will have 38 fewer delegate slots than in 1992, when they had 201. But with all the GOP delegates in California going to the winner of the statewide vote, state Republicans will still have considerable clout at the convention.

Republican candidates put together their own delegate slates. Democratic delegates are selected in a separate caucus process to reflect the primary results. Only registered Democrats can participate in the Democratic primary and registered Republicans in the GOP contest.

Copyright 1996 Congressional Quarterly, Inc. All rights reserved.

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