LOS ANGELES (AP) — Imagine Ted Cruz walking precincts in Haight-Ashbury, the hippie homeland in Nancy Pelosi’s district. Or Donald Trump stumping in Compton, the West Coast capital of hip-hop.
In California, expect the unexpected.
A possibly decisive presidential primary June 7 is going to take Republican candidates where they haven’t been before, since they need to collect as many delegates as possible toward the nomination. California awards 172 delegates, the most of any state.
Home to 1 in 8 Americans, California is usually an afterthought in presidential elections, with its June primary arriving long after nominations have been settled. But an erratic Republican contest this year, reordered by the Trump insurgency, has transformed the nation’s most populous state from campaign also-ran into potential kingmaker.
California’s primary amounts to 54 separate races on a single day — one in every congressional district across the sprawling, diverse state, or 53, one statewide. The winner in each district collects three delegates; then, the candidate who gets the largest number of votes statewide claims a bonus of 10 more, plus the state party chairman and Republican National Committee members for a total bonus of 13.
That means a solidly Democratic district covering the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods east of downtown Los Angeles has the same importance as one in the traditional Republican heartland of Orange County, once the home of Richard Nixon.
Republicans account for a paltry 7 percent of the voters in the 13th Congressional District, which includes Oakland. But it awards three delegates to the winner, just like the 22nd District, a Republican fortress in the state’s farm belt.
“Anybody who tells you they have a good idea of how this is going to turn out is just lying to you,” said Robert Molnar, an adviser to Steve Poizner, a former state insurance commissioner who is leading Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s campaign in the state.
In effect, two Republican campaigns are unfolding — one for the primary, and one for the makeup of delegates who may end up deciding on a nominee at a contested convention.
DUELING OVER DELEGATES
Although the clear front-runner, Trump faces iffy odds trying to reach the threshold for the nomination — 1,237 delegates — before the June 7 primaries, which are also being held in New Jersey, Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota.
The bar is even higher for Cruz, who would need to take about 8 of 10 of the delegates remaining to clinch the nomination. Numerically, it’s out of reach for Kasich.
If no one clinches, the decision would fall to delegates at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, possibly with multiple rounds of voting.
Accordingly, campaigns in California are aggressively vetting potential delegates — 318, three for every congressional district, with three alternates. Then, they need 10 at-large delegates who would comprise the statewide bonus, plus the state GOP chairman and two national committee members.
It’s not just a list of names. Campaigns want loyalists.
Cruz campaign officials note that if no candidate emerges as the winner after the first convention ballot in July, California delegates would become free to vote for whomever they choose. However, it could be open to dispute as to when, or at what point in time, the delegates would get cut loose. State law says it’s after two ballots.
Steve Frank, a deputy political director for Cruz, said he wants to make sure his delegates will be committed to the Texas senator on the first vote, the second vote and beyond, if needed.
Typically, prospective delegates must answer a string of questions — much like a job interview. Campaigns are guarding against people with wavering commitment who could jump to other candidates in a contested convention. They also want to weed out people with backgrounds that could embarrass the candidate, such as criminal convictions.
In a convention fight “you want somebody you know will stand up to the pressures,” said Frank, a longtime conservative activist. “I want people who are stronger than me.”
To help assemble his delegates, Trump has lined up strategist Ted Costa, who’s best known for pushing the 2003 recall election that led to the ascendancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor that year. He said in an email that “I’m just interviewing potential delegates” for Trump.
On primary day, Republicans will be aiming at a relatively narrow slice of California voters.
The GOP primary is open only to registered Republicans — about 4.8 million voters, out of more than 17 million overall. Republicans most likely to vote in primary elections tend toward the party faithful — conservative in their politics, mostly white and over 55 years old.
Molnar says Kasich, governor of swing-state Ohio, will be strong in coastal districts often favorable to Democrats. Cruz has demonstrated appeal to very conservative voters and born-again Christians. Trump’s populist message has resonated with blue-collar whites, and those fed up with the Washington establishment.
Trump has drawn support from outside the Republican mainstream, and nearly 1 in 4 voters in California is registered to no party at all. But those independents, along with Democrats, will be shut out of the GOP race unless they change party registration.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton could have the nomination wrapped up before the California primary.
But quirks in the GOP race mean it’s possible the candidate who wins the statewide vote might not get the most delegates overall.
Once a reliable Republican state in presidential elections, California today is dominated by Democrats. The party holds every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature, along with a 2.7 million edge in registered voters. The last significant push by a Republican to win California was in 2000, when George W. Bush spent more than $15 million, then lost to Democrat Al Gore by 12 points.
Michael Schroeder, Cruz’s state political director, said it’s possible only a few thousand Republicans will show up in some heavily Democratic districts.
Though small in number, those voters “will have a far greater impact and it’s going to force Republicans to campaign in neighborhoods they historically haven’t campaigned in,” he said.
“I think California is going to matter for the first time in our lifetime,” Schroeder said.