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CALIFORNIA: THE KEY TO THE ELECTORAL LOCK

A Commentary By Rhodes Cook

Friday, April 03, 2009

California may be the Golden State, but it has been a while since people have called it that without a trace of sarcasm. With its double digit unemployment rate, difficult to balance budget, and crumbling infrastructure, California these days is anything but golden.

That is, with the exception of its mother lode of electoral votes. Since 1972, California has possessed more than any other state, and is certain to maintain the number one spot throughout the next decade.

Yet candidates of late have battled more fiercely for the electoral votes of much smaller states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and New Mexico. From 1968 through 1988, California was reliably found in the Republican column in every presidential contest. Since then, the state's huge bloc of electoral votes (55 in 2008) has gone virtually by default to the Democrats.

For Republicans to have any real hope of a comeback in the next presidential election, that will have to change. Over the last few decades, whichever party won California was highly competitive nationally, and the vast majority of the time also won the White House. Meanwhile, whichever party lost California had to struggle hard to cobble together an Electoral College majority that left them little room for error.

In the 11 presidential elections since 1968, the California winner has been elected eight times. In the other three contests--1976, 2000 and 2004--the victor in California lost nationally but still garnered at least 240 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory, a respectable tally that kept those three races close through Election Night.

But it could be a tall order for Republicans to put California back in play anytime soon. Democrats have carried the state by more than one million votes in five straight presidential elections, and their margin in 2008 swelled to more than three and a quarter million.

Barack Obama's victory margin in California was historic. It was more than twice as large as any compiled by favorite sons Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan when they sought the White House. And for that matter, Obama's huge California win last November was the largest margin in raw votes ever posted by a presidential candidate in any state at any time in American history.

Obama's victory in California was sweeping. He branched out from the normal Democratic base along the vote-rich Pacific coast to win the populous inland suburban counties of Southern California as well as much of the agricultural Central Valley from Fresno north to Stockton.

And Obama ran up huge margins in Democratic strongholds, taking San Francisco with nearly 85 percent of the vote, Alameda County (Berkeley and Oakland) with nearly 80 percent, and huge Los Angeles County with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Altogether, Obama carried nine of California's 10 most populous counties, losing only Orange (the proverbial home of Sun Belt Republicanism) by less than 3 percentage points.

In the process, Obama won every hue of California's "rainbow coalition." According to election exit polls, he drew a narrow majority of the state's white vote, nearly two-thirds of the Asian vote, almost three-fourths of the Hispanic vote, and nearly 95 percent of the African-American vote--all in a state that is now mostly comprised of minorities and where minorities cast fully one-third of the presidential ballots in 2008.

In short, Republicans seem to be drifting further and further away from seriously contesting California. But there are signs of hope for the GOP. The narrow passage last fall of the ballot measure banning gay marriage (Proposition 8) underscored that California cannot be simply dismissed as knee-jerk liberal. Even though Obama opposed the ban, more than a third of all California Democrats joined more than 80 percent of Republicans to support Prop 8, with a clear majority of African Americans and Hispanics voting for the ban on gay marriage.

Looking at California's party registration figures, the terrain may not be quite as bad for Republicans as even they might think. To be sure, the GOP had fewer registered voters in California last fall than it did in 1992. But the growth stock in the state is not the Democrats, rather the category labeled "Other." It is comprised primarily of independent voters--or in California parlance, "Decline to State." In the fall of 2008, less than half of the state's 17.3 million registered voters were Democrats (44 percent). Fully 55 percent were Republican (31 percent) or Other (24 percent).

Still, Republicans cannot hope to win California's electoral votes without altering the status quo.

They must find a way to make the Republican brand appealing to the state's growing minority population.

They must nominate candidates who can appeal not just to the party base but to independents as well. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a prime example of that. The Austrian-born "Governator" is the only Republican to carry California in a presidential, senatorial, or gubernatorial election since 1994.

And as important as anything, Republicans must do something that they have not done for several election cycles--make a serious commitment to contest California. For it is a basic rule of thumb in American politics that you cannot win if you do not compete--and this goes double in the nation's most populous state.

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