California primary: headed for splitsville?

McCain could win popular vote yet lose the state's Republican delegates to Bush.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's only a whisper at this stage of the presidential campaign season.

But California has the potential, say analysts, to jolt the race for the Republican Party nomination in a way that could rattle the tea cups right down to the party's late-summer convention.

Unfolding here, far from the current battlefront in South Carolina, is the distinct possibility that the nation's largest and potentially most influential state in the presidential campaign could deliver a split verdict in the race for GOP standard-bearer.

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It's a scenario that has never played out before, leaving analysts uncertain about its impact. But they do agree it would be one for the record books.

The scenario

It would look like this: Sen. John McCain wins more votes than Gov. George W. Bush, but the latter sews up the state's GOP delegates on March 7, and in so doing, takes a huge stride toward his party's nomination.

With former Sen. Bill Bradley trailing far behind Vice President Al Gore and actually losing ground here, according to recent polls, no such split scenario applies to the Democrats.

But a surging Senator McCain, a rapidly expanding nonaligned portion of the California electorate, and this state's peculiar primary system have created what could be the GOP's worst nightmare.

Much depends on the dynamics of the race when it barrels into California for the early March primary.

But if at that stage it's a pitched battle, "there is the real possibility of a split outcome," says California-based pollster Paul Maslin. "Over here, of course, we're loving it," adds Mr. Maslin, who works for the Democrats.

"It's very possible that this whole thing could explode in their face," agrees Tony Quinn, a veteran Republican consultant, referring to the state GOP.

Changes in the system

The makings of this possibility date back to two important changes in recent California political history. In 1996, the state adopted an open "blanket" primary, meaning voters can vote for whomever they want, regardless of their party affiliation. Unlike voters in many other "open" primary states, Californians can also cross party lines on the same ballot, voting Republican for one race, Democratic for another.

The second change was the state's desire to throw its weight around. While awarding the nation's largest number of delegates, California nonetheless has traditionally been late in the primary season, often ratifying rather than dictating the party nominees. This year, things are different, with California early enough in the process to strongly influence its outcome.

Yet along the way, the state's political parties got cold feet with regard to the open primary and passed legislation requiring two tallies from the primary ballot.

Two separate tallies

One is the overall outcome, showing the raw totals for each of the 23 presidential candidates on the ballot. The other is a tally of how many Republicans voted for the Republican candidates, and how many Democrats lined up behind the candidates of their party.

It seemed like a neat solution at the time. "No one ever imagined something like this being a possibility," says Leslie Goodman, a Republican communications consultant who has done work for the Bush campaign.

What happened is McCain closed the gap between himself and Bush in California. While he still trails Bush by 19 points among Republicans, he's only 8 points behind him among all likely voters.

That's a tribute to McCain's strength among unaffiliated voters, which though still less than 20 percent of the state electorate is also the fastest-growing segment.

And McCain is gaining.

Particularly stunning was a result from the most recent California Field Poll showing that when paired directly against Democratic front-runner Gore, McCain is dead even, a better hypothetical performance than Bush registers when he is pitted against Gore.

Both McCain and Bush camps predict they'll win both contests, for the delegates and for the popular vote.

But many analysts are convinced that with the Republican establishment so solidly behind Bush, McCain's strategy could well be to win the popularity contest and garner a huge moral victory.

Such an outcome could severely damage Bush and create questions about his electability in November, giving McCain ammunition at the party's nominating convention later this year.

"We expect to win both" contests, says Dan Schnur, a member of the McCain team. "But any candidate that won the delegates but lost the popular vote would be a crippled candidate," he says.

Nobody is quite sure how the national Republican Party would deal with such an outcome, should it occur.

Some believe the remaining primaries and the late-season standing of the candidates would determine how much trouble a split outcome in California would present.

Republican consultant Quinn is convinced the electorate, and probably the courts, would not settle for an outcome different than how they voted overall.

"The political reality is whoever wins, wins," he says. "You can't give the delegates to the loser of the overall vote. No way."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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