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
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
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
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
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
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.