Traditionally holding its presidential primary in June, California had once been a “kingmaker” in nominating contests. In long-lasting primary seasons, the nation’s largest state played a decisive role, its late primary allowing it to choose the nominees or at least choose the top contenders for a convention fight. Such was the case in 1968, when the California primary gave New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy a four-point win over Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy to become the alternative to establishment candidate Vice President Hubert Humphrey, were it not for Kennedy’s assassination. Similarly, in 1976 the California primary sustained favorite son Ronald Reagan’s vigorous challenge to President Gerald R. Ford.
Since 1976, however, California has had limited influence on the selection of political party nominees. While California maintained its June primary, not only were more and more states holding primaries, but they were holding them earlier and earlier. During the next three competitive Republican presidential primaries—in 1988, 1996, and 2000—Vice President George H. W. Bush, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush respectively had each sewn up their nominations before California even voted. Consequently, efforts have been undertaken to improve California’s say in the 2008 presidential nominations.
The most visible change to California’s primary is moving the date from June to Tuesday, February 5, the earliest date allowed under the rules of either the Republican or Democratic parties. In doing so, California joins twenty-two other states holding a nominating contest for at least one of the major political parties. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill moving the primary into law on March 15, 2007, he announced at a news conference, “Moving up the primary from June to February gives California the influence it deserves in choosing the next presidential candidates.”
But in California’s Republican primary, even more changes are underway. Most notably, California’s delegates to the Republican National Convention will not be selected at-large for the first time since 1976. Rather, 159 of the state’s 173 delegates will be awarded to each candidate by congressional district. By localizing delegate apportionment, it has been suggested that Republican presidential candidates will pay more attention to California and that cash-strapped candidates can remain viable without competing in the state’s expensive media markets.
The California Republican Party first sought the rules change as the best way through which it could improve California’s relevance to the presidential nomination process on its own, as the party itself had no power to change the primary’s date like the state’s elected officials do. “In 1999, a group of us actually sought to change back to proportional representation,” elaborated Jon Fleischman, the elected vice chair of the California Republican Party for southern California, who at the time served as the party’s executive director.
After encountering institutional objections that California’s delegation needed to stay together to remain relevant, Mr. Fleischman and others agreed to winner-take-all by congressional district, but had to negotiate with now-President George W. Bush’s campaign to prevent the rules change from taking effect until 2004. The decision was finalized in an executive committee session and submitted to the Republican National Committee before the year 2000. Now that 2008 has yielded the first Republican caucuses and primaries since 2000, the rules change takes effect.
Yet Mr. Fleischman himself is pessimistic. “I don’t know how much of difference winner-take-all by district will make,” he said, suggesting that even congressional districts are too large not to adhere to the statewide tally. He added, “There was hope when we enacted this change.”
When asked what kind of an impact the rules change will have on the primary, he responded, “It’s too early to tell. We won’t know until we know if there’s enough of an incentive for candidates to change the way they approach California.”
With the possible exception of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for now, most of the Republican field has put California on the backburner in favor of states with even earlier primaries, creating the possibility that California will still be left behind and strongly influenced by how other states vote. Indeed, despite polls giving Mr. Giuliani a commanding lead in California throughout 2007, the first two polls taken in California after the New Hampshire primary, one by SurveyUSA and the other by CNN, gave the edge to Arizona Sen. John McCain, the winner of the New Hampshire primary.
Campaigns Respond to Changes
The campaigns of many presidential candidates have reacted enthusiastically to the change in delegate allotment, eager to make their appeals to individual Californians for their own share of the state’s delegation to the convention. As a result, each campaign tries to appear responsive to Californians’ calls—that California deserves more attention in the presidential nomination process-that led to the primary changes. Their efforts even extend to the San Francisco Bay Area, widely considered a liberal bastion.
Mr. Giuliani’s campaign has perhaps best embraced the state, making delegate-rich California a cornerstone of his unorthodox strategy of foregoing early states in favor of larger states later in the process, like Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York. “No other candidate has spent as much time in California,” said Jarrod Agen, the campaign’s regional spokesman, drawing attention to the 12 trips and 31 campaign days Mr. Giuliani has spent in California. The former mayor has not only visited San Francisco and Oakland, but has also visited conservative Orange County more than any other candidate.
“Rudy has an advantage because he’s so well known in California. They know what he did in New York, they know what he did for 9/11,” Mr. Agen replied when asked why Mr. Giuliani is a good match for California. “He’s the only candidate who has led in a time of crisis. A lot of Californians can relate to his turnaround in New York – when it comes to illegal immigration, they’ve seen how he fought crime in New York, and he can use the same techniques to end illegal immigration.”
The campaign has 9 field directors across the state, who say they do not focus on some regions more than others, despite all 53 congressional districts each being worth 3 delegates. On the San Francisco Peninsula, Mr. Agen specifically cited efforts including volunteers and regional campaign staff working phone banks and door-to-door canvassing.
Thomas J. Weissmiller, the Romney for President Chair on the San Francisco Peninsula and South Bay, challenged Mr. Giuliani’s statewide organization by countering, “The Romney campaign was the first to release its chairs for the 53 congressional districts in California.” Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has led all Republican presidential candidates in fundraising in California, and also received the endorsement of the California Republican Assembly (CRA), which requires a two-thirds vote. Mr. Weissmiller noted that historically, recipients of the CRA endorsement win the primary.
As regional chair, Mr. Weissmiller coordinates efforts between the campaign’s state field coordinator and the five congressional districts in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties. “We recruit volunteers to do phone banking, attend events, provide surrogate speakers, contact persons that sign up on the www.MittRomney.com website and distribute yard signs,” he said. On September 28, Mr. Romney came to the area to attend a town hall meeting, “Ask Mitt Anything,” in Santa Clara, and two fundraisers in Atherton. Mr. Romney has visited the state several times, and his wife, Ann, and sons have also hosted events.
“California will benefit most from Gov. Romney because of his experience and success in capital formation and innovation,” Mr. Weissmiller added. “He is on a first name basis with many of the venture capitalists in California. For California to thrive it must continue to be the leader of innovation.”
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson’s campaign, however, may operate the closest to the original intention of apportioning delegates by congressional district. While other campaigns optimistically predict their ability to win all 53 districts in California, Jason Scalese, Mr. Thompson’s 12th Congressional District Chair in northern San Mateo County and part of San Francisco, recognizes different candidates’ appeals to different areas of the state. “In my working on this campaign, I have found more metro areas to be more moderate, perhaps favoring someone like Rudy Giuliani,” he said.
Mr. Scalese expands, however, on the appeals more conservative candidates have in other parts of diverse California: “There are many very red districts in this state, like the Central Valley and Orange County, that are more likely to vote similarly to that of southern states, meaning looking for true conservatives with values supporting second amendment rights, pro-life, strong security, cutting taxes, ending illegal immigration, on which Fred is far superior to the more moderate candidates,” going on to specifically name Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Romney, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
In late 2007, Mr. Thompson came to California for two rallies and three fundraisers. Local efforts for the campaign include volunteer outreach and getting out the vote as key focuses. The campaign attends every possible event, does phone banking, and host volunteer get-togethers.
Students Get Involved
With the new local emphasis on the primary, Stanford University students have taken the opportunity to engage the 2008 political process, many of whom have formed or joined student groups supporting particular candidates. Unsurprisingly, the largest groups on campus support Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Sophomore Stephanie Majerowicz, the outreach coordinator for the Stanford chapter of Students for Barack Obama, said their group has 30 active members, around 100 passive members, and over 500 members in their Facebook group. “We expect a huge upsurge in active supporters for the next month before February 5, and in fact have already gotten many requests from people who want to help in California and who have been inspired by Obama’s message and the results in Iowa,” Ms. Majerowicz said.
At Stanford, Students for Barack Obama have tabled at football games and in White Plaza, where they have passed out information and registered voters, and attended events like a straw poll in San Mateo. Over 150 Stanford students attended Mr. Obama’s most recent rally in San Francisco in December, many of whom earned tickets by giving time to the campaign. In addition, the group has begun “a comprehensive field operation throughout Stanford, which we will use to register voters, contact them for persuasion, and get out the vote,” according to Ms. Majerowicz. They also have many captains in individual campus residences to coordinate such efforts.
Although not necessarily as large or as visible as groups supporting Democratic candidates, there are students on campus mobilized to form groups to help certain Republican presidential candidates. “We respect [the groups supporting Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton] for supporting a candidate they believe in and making students more aware of their political efficacy,” said freshman Tessa Price. Along with fellow freshman Cameron Mullen, Ms. Price co-founded Stanford Students for Rudy in early December 2007.
Currently in the recruiting stage, Stanford Students for Rudy exists to raise awareness about Mr. Giuliani and his presidential candidacy. “We want [students] to get excited, to get involved, and realize that this election will heavily affect our generation and that Giuliani is the man to help us achieve a future we want full of promise, stability, and prosperity,” said Ms. Price. They plan to generate awareness through e-mail, Facebook, phone banks, helping students register to vote, and rallying.
Stanford Students for Rudy has also used the regional campaign structure to forge links with the local campaign for Mr. Giuliani, primarily working with the district’s field representative. She has helped the students set up a web cast for Mr. Giuliani, plan phone banks, and serve as a resource for up-to-date information. “The official Giuliani campaign staff has been nothing but enthusiastic about our efforts,” Ms. Price said.
Although no formal campus group exists, Mr. Romney also finds support among Stanford students. “Romney has a personal connection to Stanford,” said sophomore Grant Starrett, national chairman of Students for Mitt, drawing attention to the year Mr. Romney spent as a freshman living in Wilbur Hall before transferring to Brigham Young University. According to Mr. Starrett, over twenty Stanford students have signed up under Students for Mitt’s finance division, where college students act as independent fundraisers for the campaign, and even more have joined the national group’s political and e-strategy divisions.
In addition, existing conservative student groups have engaged political campaigns. On November 5, the Stanford College Republicans co-hosted an “opportunities fair” with the Stanford Democrats, which included representatives from Mr. Giuliani’s and Mr. Thompson’s campaigns. Meanwhile, the Stanford Conservative Society hosted Mr. Romney’s son and daughter-in-law, Craig and Mary Romney, to talk about Students for Mitt during the Republican presidential debate on May 3, 2007. The Stanford Conservative Society has also distributed information to supporters of Mr. McCain.