After Iowa and New Hampshire, politicos look to California

After divided results in the Democratic and Republican contests in New Hampshire and Iowa, there is no doubt that California matters. In the wake of New Hampshire, California is on the lips of all the national pundits. But it’s not just the state’s Feb. 5 election they’re talking about. It’s California’s 1982 gubernatorial election.

Multiple polls in the Granite State showed Illinois Sen. Barack Obama opening up a wide lead over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in the days before the New Hampshire primary. When Clinton bested Obama on Tuesday, pundits immediately wondered if there was a racial component to the polling miscue, and whether people who were surveyed declined to honestly discuss sensitive racial issues. The phenomenon became known as “The Bradley Effect.”

The phrase refers to California’s 1982 race for governor between Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African American, and conservative Republican George Deukmejian. Polls showed Bradley with a lead going into Election Day, but in the end, Deukmejian narrowly bested Bradley in the state’s closest race for governor.

Being a pollster is kind of like being a zookeeper. Nobody notices when you do your job properly. Everyone notices when you make a mistake.

And this week, pollsters in New Hampshire got the Democratic primary dead wrong.

So, is the Bradley Effect real, and is it a real problem for Barack Obama?

Some political observers don’t buy it. “I think it’s just people trying to make sense of a surprising result,” said Dan Schnur, a veteran of statewide and national Republican campaigns. “In order to make that kind of assessment, you’d have to see a trend. Had Iowa polls overestimated Obama’s support as well, it might be a more legitimate argument.”

The other major factor in the race so far has been independent voters. Voters who are not registered with either major political party make up a plurality of voters in both New Hampshire and Iowa. Those voters were credited with giving Obama a victory in Iowa, but exit polls showed that while Obama carried New Hampshire independents in New Hampshire, the margin there was much narrower than in Iowa. New Hampshire independents are also credited with propelling John McCain to victory in that state’s Republican primary.

As strategists from both parties train their eyes on California and its prize of the most delegates in the nation for both parties, Democrats and Republicans are dealing with very different sets of primary rules.

For starters, there are the independent voters. In California, independents will only be allowed to vote in the Democratic primary.

According to the secretary of state’s office, decline-to-state voters are the fastest-growing segment of the state’s voting population.

According to the latest voter registration figures, there are about 3 million decline-to-state voters in California, about 19.3 percent of all registered voters. There are about 6.6 million registered Democrats and 5.2 million Republicans.

Schnur says Democrats will have to target those independent voters.

“It certainly makes sense for Obama to target independent voters. But my guess is that you’ll see Clinton doing so as well,” he said.
“California independents are truly centrists,” he says. “Ideologically, they’d be more inclined to support Clinton. But Obama’s appeal to independents has not been ideologically based. It’s more of a message of reconciliation. Hillary’s going to talk nuts and bolts policy that appeals to those voters. Obama is going to make his appeal in broader, thematic language.”

There are also very different rules about how delegates are parceled out for Republicans and Democrats. For Republicans, the California primary is really a series of 53 separate primaries. Republican candidates who gain the most votes within a congressional district get all three of that district’s delegates.

That means you could see some micro-targeting of congressional districts among Republican candidates. Candidates with more appeal to moderates, like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and McCain, could compete in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where there are more moderate Republican voters, while other more conservative candidates could pick off delegates in the Republican heartland.

The rules in the Democratic contest are very different. There are 441 Democratic delegates in California — 71 of whom are so-called superdelegates, that is, elected officials or members of the Democratic National Committee, who are free to choose their own candidate.

That leaves 370 up for grabs. Any candidate who receives more than 15 percent of the vote in any congressional district will receive delegates in the state. One hundred and twenty-nine delegates will be divided up among the top statewide vote-getters. So, if a candidate gets 50 percent of the statewide vote, that candidate would get about 65 of those 129 “statewide” delegates.

The remaining 241 delegates are divided by congressional district. Each congressional district has between three and six delegates. Districts with more Democratic votes have more delegates. Nancy Pelosi’s congressional district, for example, has six delegates because of the high number of Democratic votes in San Francisco.

If a candidate gets 50 percent of that district’s vote, he or she will receive 50 percent of that district’s delegates — in this case, three of the six.

Confused? Understandable. But a spokesman for the state Democratic Party can translate.

“The effect is, you can’t write off California,” says state Democratic Party spokesman Roger Salazar. “You can lose the race in California and get more delegates by losing than you would get by winning Iowa or New Hampshire.”

But delegate counts only matter if there is a deadlocked nominating convention. While Salazar admits that is probably still an outside possibility, fostered primarily in the fantasies of political junkies, he says that this year, anything is possible.

“The safe bet is that we will have a nominee after Super Tuesday on Feb. 5,” he says. “But with the strength of the top two candidates, and every time you have events like this week, it makes the possibility (of a contested convention) more likely.”

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