Golden Headache

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It’s being called, in the language of political hyperbole, “Super-Duper Tuesday.” What will happen when nearly two dozen states collide February 5? The Republican victors are likely to be all over the map: Fred Thompson in Tennessee, Rudy Giuliani in New York and New Jersey, John McCain in Arizona. The media will be scouring the results to determine the real winner, looking for a showdown state to decide the leader of the pack.

And this time it just might be California, the biggest prize of all.

For Golden State Republicans, there couldn’t be better news. California has been shunned by both parties as a blue-state “given” in presidential years and, since Chelsea Clinton’s days at Stanford, has rarely been a destination for Air Force One. GOP activists feel like the wallflower who never gets asked to dance. Indeed, the decision by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to move up the presidential primary from the first Tuesday in June to the first Tuesday in February, at a cost of $80 million to taxpayers, could be seen as a very costly shot of self-esteem for his fellow Republicans.

“California is important again in presidential nomination politics, and we will get the respect that California deserves, and our issues will get the due respect along the campaign trail and also in Washington,” Schwarzenegger said after signing the legislation March 15, 2007.

But what’s good for California isn’t so swell for the top tier of Republican candidates. The Golden State is a 24-karat headache in terms of how to approach it, how to campaign in it, and how to survive it without committing lasting political damage.

Let’s start with the sheer mechanics of the place.

More like a nation than a state, California is made up of a series of media markets, few of which overlap and each of which is too large to ignore: Sacramento, the Bay Area, the Central Valley, the Inland Empire, Los Angeles, and San Diego. It’s also at one end of the country—meaning long flights just to get here, plus the expense of jetting to all those media markets. So rather than getting coverage though public events, a candidate might decide that paid media is more time-efficient. Los Angeles and San Francisco, however, are two of the nation’s five most expensive television markets. This explains why, in recent presidential contests, the two parties kept their advertising to cheaper cable news channels, even if it meant smaller viewing audiences, rather than the more expensive local network affiliates.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s decision to move up the presidential primary to the first Tuesday in February could be seen as a costly shot of selfesteem for his fellow Republicans.

For the 2008 candidates, Plan B in California could be a smaller-scale guerrilla campaign that is more reliant on technology than the typical approach: e-mail, recorded phone calls to registered Republicans, and frequent appearances on conservative talk radio. It’s cheaper than a $5 million TV campaign. But high-tech is high risk in that it doesn’t guarantee blanket coverage of a large audience (2.8 million California Republicans participated in the March 2000 primary—more than seven times the total vote in New Hampshire).

Two candidates, Giuliani and McCain, arrived at a way around this dilemma. They latched onto Schwarzenegger, who is still a political novelty— and still a press magnet—four years after he catapulted to office in a special election. In February 2007, McCain appeared with Schwarzenegger in Long Beach to discuss global warming. A month later, Giuliani teamed up with Schwarzenegger to discuss gang violence. Other than appearing on the airwaves with Jay Leno or Rush Limbaugh, or getting chased by cops down a Los Angeles freeway, stumping with the “Governator” seems to be the best way to get coverage in every California media market in one fell swoop.

Sharing Schwarzenegger’s spotlight, however, presents a dilemma for a candidate: is the appearance tantamount to endorsing his left-of-center drift and “postpartisan” brand of politics? Schwarzenegger’s style has worked wonders for him in two gubernatorial contests, in which the winning coalition consisted of Republicans, independents, and disaffected Democrats. But the February primary is different: only Republicans can vote for the GOP candidates, thus making for an electorate that is skewed to the conservatives.

Then again, playing the role of the anti-Arnold—drifting right to win in February—all but ensures defeat in California nine months later. History shows that Bush the elder, back in 1988, was the last top-of-the-ticket pro-lifer to win in California in a November election. Add to that an Iraq war that is increasingly unpopular with Californians, and California’s hopes of being a real battleground in 2008 start to fade.

What’s troubling about this early February primary in California is its potential to further fuel the aura of futility that hovers over Golden State presidential politics. Californians complain about being the ATM of American politics—presidential candidates mine the state early for money, yet spend their time elsewhere. But like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, the state has had no luck at changing that dynamic. In 2000, moving up the presidential primary to early March supposedly made the state a kingmaker. But the result was more of the same: lopsided results in favor of both parties’ front-runners.

If the February primary fails to live up to its promise, California’s ego will take another bruising. But California isn’t the only state that has let vanity get the best of it: nearly two dozen are scheduled to vote February 5, making it quite possible that the two parties will choose their nominees just three weeks after the Iowa caucuses—in only half the time it took 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry to seal his nomination.

A problem: playing the role of the anti-Arnold—drifting right to win in February—all but ensures defeat in California nine months later.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1984, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart competed for the Democratic nomination for the better part of 12 weeks, from Iowa in mid-January to New York in early April. Bill Clinton followed the same path eight years later.

Three weeks doesn’t offer much time for scrutiny, much less finding out whether a front-runner can take a punch in the gut and recover, or if a surprise candidate has real heft or is merely a media-woven fabrication. And the accelerated race flies in the face of American political orthodoxy: presidents are chosen in a single day; nominees, more thoughtfully and deliberately.

Maybe Super-Duper Tuesday won’t deliver a knockout punch. And maybe the Golden State, defying its traditional role of spectator to the nomination, will send the Republican contest in a new direction and push the race further into springtime.

Or maybe that’s just more California dreaming.