It’s the most important election you’ve never heard of.
On Sunday, thousands of Democrats across California will go to scattered voting places – libraries, community centers, meeting halls – to choose presidential delegates for the national convention this summer in Philadelphia.
“It’s really the Super Bowl for political junkies,” said political strategist Hector Barajas, a Republican.
Behind the scenes, there is intrigue, as rival campaigns try and smuggle their partisans into the opposite camp.
A mini-Super Bowl, though: Relatively few of California’s 7.43 million registered Democrats are even aware of the way delegates are selected by their own party. The same applies to the 4.8 million Republicans, whose delegates are chosen differently: They aren’t elected, they are selected by the campaigns and vetted by party officials.
The Democratic participants convene at separate locations – the Hillary Clinton backers in one area, the Bernie Sanders supporters in another. Only Democrats can participate and only those pledged to either candidate can run for a delegate slot. In Sacramento, for example, the Clinton supporters in the 6th Congressional District will meet at the McKinley Park library in East Sacramento, the Sanders backers at the Sierra 2 community center in Curtis Park. The polls are open only for a few hours in the afternoon.
In a close election, when California is relevant in choosing a presidential nominee, delegate selection here is crucial.
Based on this week’s primary results, however, California’s importance to the national selection is dwindling – a familiar feeling to voters in either major party in the Golden State, who traditionally see the presidential nomination wrapped up before delegate-rich California gets a chance to weigh in. The primary is June 7.
Each candidate wants steadfast delegates who will remain loyal at the convention through multiple ballots. It’s a tense and drawn out process. Behind the scenes, there is intrigue, as rival campaigns try and smuggle their partisans into the opposite camp.
So why go through it?
“You get to go to the convention!” said communications consultant Karen Skelton, a delegate candidate.
At stake is the richest trove of delegates of any state. Of California’s total 546 delegates to the Democratic convention, 317 are chosen this way, in small election gatherings held in each of California’s 53 congressional districts. Each district gets between four and nine delegates, based on district registration, past performance and other factors calculated by the party, and the final selection must reflect gender and ethnic balance, as well. The delegates are awarded proportionally based on the presidential candidate’s vote in that district.
“If you want, you can stick around and hear the speeches.”
The rest of California’s Democratic delegates, are awarded differently: 105 are divided among the candidates, pegged to their performance in the statewide vote. Fifty-three are party leaders or elected officials and 71 are the “super delegates,” party officials who can support any candidate they wish, although typically they back the most popular candidate. A Democrat needs votes from 2,383 delegates to clinch the nomination. Front-runner Hillary Clinton has 1,650 pledged delegates, a figure that includes her four-state sweep earlier this week. It does not include superdelegates.
The Democratic delegate contests are full-blown political campaigns in miniature, complete with specialized micro-targeting within a couple of square miles around the voting site, sophisticated registration lists, door-to-door campaigning, flyers, a phone bank, maybe even a billboard ad.
It’s electioneering the old-fashioned way: No computerized ballot tabulation, no electronics.
“You walk in, you put an “x” on a piece of paper and you leave,” said Steven Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant and delegate candidate who during an earlier campaign captured 160 votes and won a spot at an earlier convention. “If you want, you can stick around and hear the speeches, but since you’ve already voted, they don’t really make any difference.”
California Republicans send 172 delegates to the convention, including 159 pledged delegates – three in each congressional district –that are awarded winner-take-all to the candidate who wins the most votes in each district. Of the remaining 13 delegates, 10 are given to the candidate that wins the statewide vote and the final three are ranking party officials, including GOP state Chairman Jim Brulte.
They are not elected but the Republican delegates are intended to be representative of the party across the state. “It’s open to everyone. I like the process because I think it is equitable, it’s more than fair. It gives campaigns the opportunity to bring their message to all corners of California, and not just focus on where there are a lot of Republican voters,” Barajas said.
Maviglio is one of four contenders on a slate that includes Skelton and two others known to local Democrats – Ann Richardson and Elaine Knight.
Where do you get support?
“It’s really the true believers, the friends the family,” Maviglio said. “The closest thing to it, it reminds me of voting in New England.”