An Election 2012 Surprise: California May Matter Most

There are 172 delegates at stake in the June 5 contest -- enough for Mitt Romney to solidify a victory or Rick Santorum to deny him one.

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A generation ago, Ronald Reagan served two terms as California's governor before becoming president. As recently as the early 1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson hoped to follow in his footsteps. Nowadays, it's very difficult for Republicans to even win the statehouse in this increasingly blue state. A Republican majority in the legislature is unthinkable. And yet, the 172 delegates at stake in the closed primary scheduled for June 5 may put California Republicans in a position to significantly influence their party's presidential nomination for the first time in decades. As a point of comparison, New Hampshire had 12 delegates at stake, South Carolina had 25, and Florida had 50. It may turn out that the press overemphasized the relative importance of those states.

In statewide polls, Mitt Romney is leading, though Rick Santorum has been gaining on him. Earlier this month, the Public Policy Institute of California declared that Romney is 6 points ahead with 28 percent of the vote, but that among likely voters he and Santorum are within the margin of error. Says the San Francisco Chronicle, "California's mother lode of 172 delegates has long been considered Romney's firewall against a contested or even brokered national convention in Tampa, Fla., in August." But could the socially conservative Pennsylvanian really pull off a win here?

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, a fellow Southern California resident, says that it could happen. "Our Republicans are not like, say, Maine Republicans: kind of moderate because they live in a basically liberal state. California Republicans are fire-breathing, take-no-prisoners, down-with-the-ship Republicans," he writes. "I live in Orange County, which most people think of as ground zero for conservatism in the Golden State, and it's true that we're pretty conservative here. Our county board of directors routinely turns down federal money if it's sullied in any way with connections to Obamacare. Still, as near as I can tell, OC Republicans are pussycats compared to Central Valley Republicans. I don't know if the Central Valley Rs are more conservative than Alabama Republicans, but they'd sure give them a run for their money... although Romney seems like he'd be the best bet to win California -- it's a big, media-driven state; he's ahead in the polls; he's got good connections; etc. -- a guy like Santorum has a chance."

Perhaps he's right. I'd never have predicted Santorum would get this far. Still, I'm willing to buy Drum lunch at Orange County's finest purveyor of tacos if Santorum wins more California delegates than Romney. The vast majority of Golden State delegates (159, to be exact) are apportioned by congressional district. Each district has three delegates, and it's winner-take-all within the district. Take a look at where in the state these 53 congressional districts are located.

Here's the northern half of California:

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As you can see, there are a ton of Congressional districts spread throughout the Bay Area, a few big, sparsely populated districts spread over the Central Valley, and some even bigger, even more sparsely populated districts along the border with Oregon. And let's look at Southern California:

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Lots of districts clustered around Metro LA, a small cluster in San Diego, and a few geographically big districts in the Central Valley and along the borders with Arizona and Nevada. This is all by way of saying that even if you accept Drum's description of Central Valley Republicans, sweeping the Central Valley Congressional districts doesn't mean all that much.

Also instructive is this map from the 2008 GOP primary in California:

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On one hand, Romney was running to McCain's right in 2008. On the other hand, he proved he could win at least one Central Valley congressional district -- and McCain managed to win all the others. Also, although I don't know a ton about the Republican House members in the Central Valley, a quick look at Rep. Daniel Lungren (CA-3), Rep. Jeff Denham (CA-19). Rep. Devin Nunes (CA-21), and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (CA-22) suggests - if GovTrack's analysis is to be trusted - that they're all either "moderate" or "rank-and-file" Republicans. For what it's worth, a lifetime of paying attention to Orange County politics makes me think that it's definitely Romney territory (focused on fiscal issues and business friendliness, not particularly energized by social issues), and I imagine that Santorum will be hurt more in California than elsewhere for his history of controversial rhetoric about gays. If Newt Gingrich is still intent on competing in California, that could hurt Santorum's chances too. And Ron Paul could conceivably win Congressional districts too. When 10 delegates are awarded to the statewide winner, I expect they'll go to Romney, and that the late victory will aid his argument that he deserves to be the nominee.

Image credits: Photo by Conor Friedersdorf, maps from Wikimedia Commons