March 7 is primary day in California, Ohio, New York, and most of New England; it could all but decide who will be the major party presidential candidates this fall. But of all the states, as one campaign consultant said, California "is the killer." And California this year will conduct one of the more extraordinary and potentially bizarre elections ever held.
There'll be primary contests for legislators, members of Congress, and countless local officials, and there'll be the usual long list of state ballot measures--20 in all, including 10 voter initiatives on everything from campaign finance reform to gay marriage, juvenile crime, tobacco taxes, and Native-American gaming. In a lot of places, there'll also be local referenda. But in addition, there'll be something that's almost certainly unique and that in California, with its large prize of convention delegates (roughly one-fifth the number needed to win), has the potential for creating no end of confusion, party embarrassment, and voter alienation.
On the same day, and on the same ballot, there'll be two presidential primaries. The first is the balloting to choose delegates for the respective party conventions; in this primary, only the votes of registered party members will be counted. The other is a beauty contest in which everyone's vote will be counted and reported by election officials but which will determine nothing except perhaps the next day's headlines.
Many voters won't know that--there'll be nothing on the ballot to tell them. Fewer still understood it before February 7, which was the last day they could re-register with a different party affiliation. Thus when an independent punches his ballot next to the name of John McCain, there's a fair chance he won't know that his vote will have no bearing whatever on who will be the candidate of the Republican Party. Ditto for the Green Party member who thought her vote for Bill Bradley or Al Gore would represent something more than a muffled cheer. Otherwise identical ballots will be color coded according to the voters' party identification, to allow them to be counted separately. (In most counties, the Green Party ballot will be lavender.)
This goofy system is yet another unintended consequence of California's accident-prone initiative process--specifically Proposition 198, which the voters approved in 1996. Proposition 198 created a blanket primary in which any voter can cast a ballot for a candidate of any party. Thus Democrats can vote for Republican assembly candidates; Libertarians can vote for Democrats.
But the major national parties refuse to recognize votes from nonmembers in presidential primaries, even though membership often means nothing more than signing a registration card on election day. California thus faced a choice: Stick to its blanket primary and allow voters absolutely no direct impact on the selection of candidates for the 2000 election, or modify the system for presidential voting only. Not surprisingly, the legislature, having already moved up the primary date to give California more clout, chose the latter, which is how the state got this camel of an election.
Both Bradley and McCain, who've had particular appeal among independents, have made efforts to get the word out, as has Secretary of State Bill Jones, but only with limited success. A few weeks ago, members of McCain's skeletal organization said they'd be happy if they got 30,000 of the state's two million independents (roughly one-seventh of all registered voters) to re-register. (In what was yet another sign of things to come, the McCain people said they hoped to use the Internet to overcome their lack of funds and organization.) But they sounded as if they'd be lucky to get even a small fraction of that 30,000. Thus, while it's theoretically possible that there could be a significant gap between the vote in the beauty contest and the vote that actually counts for delegates, it's unlikely to make much difference for McCain in the Republican winner-take-all system, assuming he even makes it to California, much less for Steve Forbes or the other Republican dwarfs in the race. In a January poll by PPIC, the Public Policy Institute of California, Texas Governor George W. Bush not only led McCain 56 to 11 among likely Republican voters, he also led him among all likely voters by a margin of 28 to 8. McCain would have to close a huge margin to win California's delegation.
In the Democratic primary, however, delegates are chosen roughly in proportion to the primary vote. In last month's PPIC poll, Bradley trailed Gore 21 to 48 among Democrats and 14 to 19 among independents and members of the minor parties. If Bradley can spend enough money for television and direct mail to reduce those gaps, California's imponderable system could indeed make a difference. It could also greatly increase the anger and frustration of independent voters, most of whom thought that when the blanket primary was approved they got the right to vote for anybody on the ballot--and to have the vote count.
The real beneficiary of the California primary system could be the man who helped create it, U.S. Representative Tom Campbell, the moderate Silicon Valley Republican who sponsored Proposition 198 four years ago and who's now running against two GOP conservatives for the chance to challenge U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein in November. Campbell, who lost a Senate primary back in 1992, always argued that the closed primary system favored candidates on the Democratic left and the Republican right, despite the fact that the average Californian, in his view, was a centrist rather like himself. Since the votes of nonparty members do count in this contest, Campbell is the odds-on favorite to win the primary this year. But unless he gets a heavy infusion of cash that will allow him to generate a lot more name familiarity, his chances against centrist Feinstein are small. In January, she led him 50 to 12, with 26 percent undecided.
But perhaps the biggest part of the California story this winter has implications beyond the outcome of this primary or even of the general election in November--and that's the big-buck efforts of GOP leaders to broaden the appeal of a party that's effectively marginalized itself almost everywhere, but especially in California, and particularly among Hispanics. Given the effects of the ill-disguised immigrant bashing in Governor Pete Wilson's 1994 re-election campaign and his strong support for Proposition 187, the measure that would have denied schooling and all other social services to illegal aliens, that's hardly an easy task. When Wilson first ran for office in 1990, he got roughly 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 1998, a year in which Republicans won only one minor statewide office in California, Republican Dan Lungren, who was trounced in his race for governor, got less than 20 percent of the Latino vote. Worse for the GOP, between 1994 and 1998, Latino voter turnout, while still low, rose significantly, increasing from 9 percent to 13 percent of the electorate. In light of the rapid growth in California's Latino population--and indeed in the Latino population nationwide--the Latino vote becomes increasingly important.
With Bush, the GOP is confident it can begin to capture, or recapture, not only a lot of moderate Republican women, but also a respectable part of the Latino vote, which will be crucial in any close California election and thus to winning California's 54 electoral votes. Bush has muted his abortion stance; he's no immigrant basher; he's not made an issue of bilingual education as many California Republicans did; he went out of his way to appeal to Latinos in Texas--and got more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 1998 re-election campaign. In January, the GOP unveiled a set of commercials in both English and Spanish that it intends to run before March 7 to persuade the 25 percent of Latino voters who are uncommitted to either party that the GOP is their kind of place. The PPIC survey in January showed that in a matchup between Bush and Gore, Gore would take 58 percent of the Latino vote, against Bush's 40 percent. But due to the money the Bush campaign is likely to have in the fall, and the fact that Bush may have almost a free ride in the primary, that gap could easily close.
More important, Bush seems to be trying to move control of his party away from the nutcake fringe--the Newt Gingriches, the Tom DeLays--that's controlled it, both in Congress and in California. A year ago, even after the GOP was trounced in California, the California Republican leaders overwhelmingly endorsed Gary Bauer for president and elected as state chairman an arch-conservative named John McGraw who promptly declared that "killing our babies" was "the issue of the century." But last fall, after business gagged and contributions began to dry up, a pragmatic California legislator named Jim Brulte, who'd been a Bush co-chairman in California, used the Bush clout to put the party under what Brulte called "adult supervision." With Bush's help, Brulte, who's now the state party's finance director, got the money flowing again, thus digging the party out of debt, and moved the agenda of his legislative caucus from the old right-wing litany--abortion, immigrant bashing, and the right to own guns--to a more voter-friendly agenda: reducing student fees at the state's universities, which he correctly described as a middle-class tax cut, and putting much of the state's rising revenues into its underfunded public schools. When Democratic Governor Gray Davis gave his State of the State speech in January, Brulte said he could have given that speech himself. So could George W. Bush.
In a state whose politics often foretells and influences national politics, that change of course is significant in itself. But it's equally significant for what it says about Bush's appeal to the professionals in his own party and, beyond that, perhaps to the voters in November as well. For the past five years, Republicans, in thrall to Christian conservatives and exhausted ideologies, have fallen all over themselves scrounging for issues, like impeachment and trillion-dollar tax cuts, that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Gray Davis, and other poll-driven New Democrats haven't seized for themselves. Bush is still stuck in a doctrinaire tax-cut mode, but in moving his party away from Wilson-era wedge issues and toward a spot just to the right of the New Democrat center, he may soon make it imperative for someone to redefine just what it really means to be a Democrat. ¤