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156 of California’s delegates to the Republican National Convention will be known after Primary Day next March, more than 12% of the 1,276 needed to win the GOP presidential nomination. Stock image
California FocusOpinion

Elias: Ironically, state could be key for Trump, DeSantis

At this early date, about nine months before next spring’s California primary election and seven months before Republicans in Iowa caucuses begin the only polling that actually counts, there appears a decent chance Californians will have a key role in choosing the next GOP presidential nominee.

Barring a disabling felony conviction, it now seems the contest here will essentially pit twice- indicted former President Donald Trump against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by far the early leader among other Republicans.

For both men, it’s highly ironic that California could be decisive. Trump has never won a general election in this state. Both times he ran for president, California provided the votes to inflict national popular vote defeats upon him. 

While in office, he did all he could to exact revenge on California, from trying to skew census results to minimize the state’s population to acting slowly on getting relief funding for wildfire victims, and more.

DeSantis, meanwhile, publicly feuds with California Gov. Gavin Newsom over everything from tactics for dealing with the coronavirus to sending undocumented immigrants from Texas to California. 

He also seeks to harm the Walt Disney Co., one of California’s largest corporations and Florida’s biggest private employer, with huge operations near Orlando.

But reality says California could be key to the outcome. Republicans changed their primary election rules to give three delegates to whichever Republican does best in every congressional district, and California has 52.

So 156 of this state’s delegates to the Republican National Convention will be known after Primary Day next March, more than 12% of the 1,276 needed to win the GOP presidential nomination.

The vast majority of those delegates will come from the 40 California districts represented by Democrats in Congress. So Republican voters living in liberal California districts might decide the GOP nomination. 

This process may matter more than the results of the Democratic primary, because Democratic Party rules mean the “winner” will only get some of California’s Democratic convention delegates.

In 2000, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders “won” the state’s primary with 35% of the vote but got far less than a majority of its delegates, helping Joe Biden become president.

The GOP rules also mean any big winner in the party’s primary here could pick up vast momentum by doing well in most districts, plus picking up 13 more votes from party officials who get automatic delegate slots.

In 2016, the last time a GOP primary here was seriously contested, Trump polled 74% and won all the state’s delegates. John Kasich, the former Ohio governor and congressman who finished second with 11%, got none, because no one polling under 20% wins anything.

California would have far more GOP delegates if the party performed more strongly here than it has; the GOP gives “bonus delegates” to states where its candidates fare best electorally.

But there may be great significance to the 12% of delegates needed to win the nomination that will be decided in districts here. That prospect has been enough to bring DeSantis to California more than once, even if he’s held his nose because he so disdains this place.

Early polling performed prior to the latest Trump indictment suggests DeSantis might get a fair number of those California delegates. 

Recent polls on the primary showed only DeSantis and Trump over the 20% level needed to win any delegates at all.

DeSantis figures to raise more money here than Trump, as one survey — from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies — found DeSantis leading among college graduates, 39%-23%.

Generally, college graduates provide more campaign dollars than others. The Berkeley poll surveyed more than 7,500 likely voters, one of the largest samplings in recent years.

Yet, neither Trump nor DeSantis has much chance of carrying California in November of next year, no matter how the primary turns out. No Republican presidential candidate has won here since George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis, 51%-48%, in 1988.

All of which means, ironically, that the most strongly Democratic state in America just might be among the most influential in Republican politics next year. Go figure.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].