POLITICS

Often an afterthought in primaries, California poised to decide 2016 GOP race

People vote at a polling place in the heavily Latino East L.A. area during the U.S. presidential election on November 6, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

People vote at a polling place in the heavily Latino East L.A. area during the U.S. presidential election on November 6, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)  (2012 Getty Images)

By the time the 2012 California primary took place on June 5, Mitt Romney was the last man standing in the Republican field, and he won nearly 80 percent of the vote, taking home all 172 of the delegates awarded by the state.

To say that the most populous state in the nation – home to one in eight Americans and handing out 14 percent of the delegates needed to win the GOP nomination – was relegated to a political afterthought is a tremendous understatement. 

In fact, it had been more than two months since another GOP candidate had defeated Romney in any state, and none of his rivals had secured more than 20 percent of the primary vote in any state since April 24. 

And that isn't unusual for presidential campaigns over the last few decades. 

But like many things in this year’s strange and unconventional presidential campaign season, California has now become an anomaly – especially on the Republican side where the Sunshine State could play kingmaker come the June 7 primary.

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And if the delegate count isn’t enough to get the candidate’s biting their nails, the state’s primary system makes it so the presidential hopeful will have to crisscross the state for every vote like they were back in New Hampshire again.

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.

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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.

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JUNE JOUSTING

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.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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