California Sleeping

California votes Tuesday in the Democratic primary, but you’d hardly know it.


California, with the largest haul of Democratic delegates up for grabs on “Super Tuesday,” is by some measures the biggest political prize in the primary elections. But next week’s primary is barely registering with voters. “Primary, what primary?” asks the Financial Times.

California votes on Tuesday to choose a Democratic challenger to George W. Bush. But if you weren’t looking, you would hardly know it.

In part this is because the contest isn’t looking like much of a competition. Polls put John Kerry at least 30 points ahead of John Edwards, and though one-third of voters might change their minds, most of these are Edwards backers. The Christian Science Monitor says there’s a “sleepy inevitability” about the outcome.

California moved its primary from fall to spring in 1996 precisely to give the state more of a say in the nomination process. But, explains Nelson Polsby, a political scientist at Berkeley, it’s still not early enough. “Kerry has got it sewn up – California’s primary comes too late.” Adds Art Tores, the chairman of the Democratic party in California, “The cycle has to be changed.”

Neither candidate has gone out of his way to court California voters, partly because, given the size of the state, it’s virtually impossible to do retail politics there, and TV advertising, at $5m a pop, is prohibitively expensive.

To the extent that they are campaigning in California, the two Democrats might be bringing the wrong message. As in other parts of the country, Kerry and Edwards are focusing on jobs and trade. But that’s an approach that might not click so well in the Golden State, at least according to the San Jose Mercury News:

California, the nation’s second-largest exporting state, depends on trade to keep its economy humming. Offshoring, the trend toward moving skilled jobs to places like India, may be stoking the fears of some. But analysts say California voters also know the benefits of free trade. So do political donors, particularly in Silicon Valley, where many owe their fortunes to open borders.

“I think there’s a protectionist element in California, but this is a state that lives or dies by trade,” said Garry South, a California Democratic strategist who advised Sen. Joe Lieberman before he dropped out. “If I were a Democratic candidate, I would be a little careful of bashing trade in California.”

Despite Kerry’s momentum, Edwards is still optimistic, on the basis that “in any place that we campaign head-to-head, I’m surging at the end. Every single place, and this is not an accident.”

Edwards is presenting himself as an advocate for the working poor. This from Kurtzman:

Likening himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, who he said had made strides to help poor people and minorities during difficult times, Edwards said he would take up the challenge of fighting for the poor, even though poor people often do not vote.

While the speech might not yield votes from the poor, it seemed designed to appeal to the progressive wing of the party and give liberal Democrats an alternative to Kerry.

If anyone’s paying attention, that is. Mary Leonard of the Boston Globe thinks the media focus on gay marriage will distract public from the candidates’ core messages. It was certainly a main focus of last night’s debate in Los Angeles.

Time is short, the state is huge, TV advertising is too expensive, and all Californians want to talk about is gay marriage, an issue that promises to distract the leading Democratic candidates as they land here and make a mad dash to win over voters before Tuesday’s presidential primary.

Both Democrats are avoiding extreme stances on gay marriage, neither supporting Bush’s goal to alter the Constitution nor backing San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s push to legalize same sex marriage. Instead they support civil unions.

Polls show that most Americans don’t support marriage for gay people and California Democrats, diverse as they are, are most likely to fall in line with Kerry and Edwards despite a Bay area campaign to vote for Kucinich in protest.

The focus on gay marriage might draw attention away from another defining issue in California: immigration.
Ann Simmons of the Los Angeles Times notes the growing importance of the immigrant vote:

In California, where the latest census figures put Latinos at 32% of the population and Asians at 11%, and where 44% of Latinos are foreign born, immigration is a pertinent issue, both practically and symbolically.

Leaders of ethnic advocacy groups say a candidate’s stand on immigration policy determines one simple factor: whether a candidate is for immigrants or against them.

Immigration is for Latinos similar to what civil rights is for African Americans,” said Sergio Bendixen, a pollster who specializes in opinion research among Latinos.”

Both Democrats attack Bush’s guest worker plan as a crude device to court the votes of immigrants while stripping them of rights.

Edwards “charges that millions of immigrants would be thrust into “a second-class status with no real promise of citizenship.”

Kerry has argued that the policy “rewards business over immigrants by providing them with a permanent pool of disenfranchised temporary workers who could easily be exploited by employers.

But some ethnic community advocates have praised Bush for propelling the immigration issue to the fore and for introducing concrete steps toward giving illegal immigrants the chance to become legal residents.

They also maintain that both immigrant and American-born Latinos have become more politically savvy and that Democrats can no longer take their support for granted.

The environment, largely ignored so far, could emerge as a key issue in progressive San Francisco and Los Angeles, where liberals might favor Kerry’s solid record pushing for clean air and foreign oil alternatives and fighting oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness.

Although Kerry and Edwards have voted similarly on most issues, the senior senator has backed environmental protections more vigorously. However, although Edwards opposed a bill that would have tightened emissions on pick-up trucks, he fought Bush administration efforts to relax clean air rules.

But all this may be beside the point. The Christian Science Monitor calls the vote a “foregone ending,” because, in California as elsewhere, voters are leanign toward Kerry as the guy that can beat Bush. “Kerry’s electability is far more important to voters here than his positions,” one analyst tells the paper. Another says: “Mainly, voters here know Kerry looks good on TV and is winning, and so they want him.”