CA120: California, here you come

Illustration by Tim Foster, Capitol Weekly.

Yes, this could be happening.

California, despite holding its primary presidential election in June and being a (somewhat) proportional state, could matter in the Democratic nomination process. And it will almost certainly provide the final big set of Republican delegates that could give Donald rump the 1,237 he needs for the nomination — or deny him and ensure a contested GOP convention.


So, for those candidates, campaign consultants, staffers and reporters flocking to the Best Coast, Welcome!  You’re going to have a totally rad time!

But here’s a dozen things you need to know before you’re wheels-down and working in the Golden Primary.

1. You’re not from here. California is a unique political culture. You thought you had a hard time fitting in a few weeks ago because you couldn’t correctly pronounce “Nevada.” Well, California is much worse. You’re gonna stick out like a sore thumb in every meeting, event, and on every conference call. Just learn to trust us Californians, we know how to run campaigns here, and nobody else does.

On the East Coast, state, local and federal elected officials, staff, campaign managers and activists move freely between each level of government and their campaigns. In California, there are distinctions between the state and federal sides. Few can traverse the two political cultures and have the same credibility and connections to swim in both pools. So, find some embedded Californians you can trust and hang on.

You think it was pretty astounding that Jeb Bush’s political PAC spent $14 million on TV in Iowa?  Well, that’s cute.

2. California is not homogeneous. Throw away the melting pot and think of the chef’s salad. We’ve got eggheads and nut balls, meat and potatoes and leafy greens, and they are geographically dense in several pockets of the state. For the most part, diversity is found among different cities and neighborhoods, but not as much within them.

As a rule, the coastal districts are liberal and inland voters are more conservative. The Central Valley counties are our rural, low income “Southern States,” San Francisco has our “Northeastern Elites” (with some dense Asian populations thrown in there), Northern California is our Montana, and Los Angeles is, well, what you actually think of when someone says “California,” with the beaches, mountains, Hollywood stars and crowded freeways.  San Diego, well, that’s also its own subculture, with large immigrant populations, retirees and some dense LGBT populations — basically, our own little Florida.

3.There are no Hispanics, only Latinos. Nothing signals your East Coast bias quicker than referring to the growing “Hispanic” population.  The Hispanic population is growing in your state, but here only the Latino population is growing.

Additionally, there are no Cubans.  Well, of course there are, but people of Cuban, Mexican, El Salvadoran, or even actual Spanish descent are all considered Latinos.

But, beware:  While the Latino political culture spans different nationalities, the Asian political culture is divided by them. The Asian community is comprised of strong Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Japanese, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese speaking), Filipino, Indian and other subsets of the Asian Community.  These are a part of the state’s political fabric, however. Each is distinct, and in some cases dramatic socioeconomic and immigrant patterns among them are additional political dividing lines.  So, beware of strategies that paint all Asians with the same brush.

4. Your media dollars don’t go far in California. You think it was pretty astounding that Jeb Bush’s political PAC spent $14 million on TV in Iowa?  Well, that’s cute.  In California, we spent more on TV passing a recent water bond.

In the 2014 election cycle, there were two healthcare ballot measures with a total of $70 million in spending.  (And not one single Californian could tell you now what those measures were.) If California had been the first state in this primary/caucus season, then Jeb Bush’s PAC would have had to spend a half-billion dollars on television to get the same impact.

A corollary of this is that campaigns in California should buy cable.  The delegate allocation is proportional by congressional district.  You’re smart enough to know which seats are worth targeting, and in most cases these are better targeted by cable.

Modeling is a big fad in DC, but if you’re modeling in California, make sure you know what data we have first.

5. Your data is no good here.

National voter files built on old statewide datasets are not the norm in California. Our campaigns rely on rich datasets, built county by county, and maintained for decades, updated yesterday, or today, maybe 20 times today.

In some states, you’re happy to know if a voter file is just three months old and if the voter is a Democrat, their age and if they voted in the last election.  But to a California political consultant, this doesn’t fly. Our consultants want to know their ethnicity, language, where they were born, if they’re a homeowner, their absentee ballot status, when they generally return their ballots, the makeup of their household, and what they had to eat for lunch last Thursday. They are used to dozens of additional pieces of readily available data that DC consultants can only dream about.

Modeling is a big fad in DC, but if you’re modeling in California, make sure you know what data we have first.  We have seen East Coast consultants model “likely primary voters,” not knowing we have that data; “likely absentee voters,” not knowing we have that; and “likely Spanish speakers.” Yes, you’re catching on: We have flags for voters who actually get Spanish language ballots, and more.  So, we love your models, but make sure you’re not inserting models where better actual data exists.

6. If the campaign books your flight to LAX, that’s their subtle way of letting you know they hate you. Never fly into LAX, unless your meeting is actually in the LAX terminal. Always fly into Burbank (where they still roll over the staircase and let you walk off the plane directly to the tarmac like you’re a ’60s Hollywood movie star). If your meetings are anywhere else in Southern California, fly into John Wayne Airport in Orange County or even Ontario.  LAX is for LOSERS. If you’re there, sad!

7. If you’re targeting those young people, start by going after the ones still registered at their childhood home. There are approximately a million young voters who in 2008 or 2012 registered at their parents’ house, moved or went to school, and haven’t re-registered. You want to get them on your bandwagon in June you better start by emailing them, phoning them, or finding them on social media and getting them re-registered where they actually live.

8. Voting in California has a time function based on when voters return their absentee ballots, as described in the first article of the CA120 series.

The regular voters who are consistently early are predominantly older homeowners (they’re the only ones who know where their stamps are and still mail things).

After this first wave, ballots continue through the next couple weeks, often giving us a better sense of the types of voters who are participating.  There is a significant late wave in the days before the election, finishing up with voters who drop off their mail-in ballots at the polls.  And, finally, the fastest shrinking population are the fuddy-duddy traditionalist poll voters who like to walk around all day with their “I voted” sticker, sneering at the hefty percentage of Californians who won’t be voting.

Half of the state’s voters are registered as PAVs — permanent vote by mail.

Daily tracking is the norm in California, with data on where and from whom ballots are being returned.  But as ballots are returned, remember that the early voters generally are more conservative, older and whiter, while late absentee and poll voters are more progressive, ethnically diverse and renters.  Campaigns must prepare for this, or they will be shocked on Election Day when their 54% Republican electorate from the early absentees becomes 48% Republican turnout once all ballots are cast.

And, like all great sporting events, a California election goes into overtime. After June 7, counties have three additional days to receive ballots in the mail — provided that they are postmarked by Election Day.  Yes, election geeks at Cook Political Report and 538, your spreadsheets will not have final delegate allocations until all these ballots are received and tallied – likely not until the following weekend, or later if there are a lot of provisional and challenged ballots.

9. Early Voting in California is not consistent statewide. Half of the state’s voters are registered as PAVs — permanent vote by mail — but this topline hides the fact that there are wide disparities by county.

In 2012, in the 36th Congressional District, Raul Ruiz (D) in Riverside had already seen 58% of the final votes cast the week prior to Election Day, but in Lucille Royball-Allard’s Los-Angeles based 40th Congressional District, only 22% of their voters had voted.  This means that any TV ads in the final weekend would have been able to reach 78% of the eventual voters in that Los Angeles Area district, but just 42% of the voters in the Riverside seat.

This has a real impact on where late dollars can be effective.  A television ad placed in congressional districts with 60% early voting is going to have much less impact than one with just 20% early voting.  And doing mail becomes much more effective as a means of communicating with the remaining voters in areas with higher early participation.

If someone says “The City,” they are not referring to Los Angeles, the state’s largest city, but to San Francisco.  Don’t call it “Frisco” unless you’re from L.A. and saying it in a purposeful, condescending way.

10. A cautionary note on the May 23 registration deadline: Yes, some staffer on your campaign says that California has had same-day voter registration since 2012.  This is true. But we just haven’t gotten around to it yet — been a bit busy — but we will totally have it done for 2020.  So, if you’re counting on a surge of young people this election cycle, you better get them registered now.

11. Don’t mix up your Valleys, Bays and “the City.” Depending on what part of the state you’re in, “The Valley” could mean Silicon Valley, the densely populated heavily Latino San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, or the vast Central Valley, a rural breadbasket for the state stretching from northern Los Angeles County up to the state Capitol in Sacramento.

Similarly, the “Bay Area” for anyone in Northern California means the several counties around San Francisco, but in Los Angeles this could mean the southern coastal “South Bay” cities below Santa Monica and around the coast to Long Beach.

If someone says “The City,” they are not referring to Los Angeles, the state’s largest city, they are referring to San Francisco.  And you’re not allowed to call it “Frisco” unless you’re from L.A. and saying it in a purposeful, condescending way just to piss off your friends who live in that crowded, costly little town.

12. And, finally, if you’re planning on stopping Donald Trump here, good luck. Remember, we might be the last state on his path to the Republican nomination, but we’ve actually nominated him before.  Yes, you might have forgotten, but in the 2000 California primary, Donald Trump won the Reform Party nomination for President.

Ed’s Note: Corrects to three days the time during which counties can receive ballots following June 7, 25th graf, and corrects Donald Trump’s 2000 primary win to Reform Party, not American Independent Party, final graf.  Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly and the creator of the CA120 column, is vice president of Political Data Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy and research company. 

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