Here They Come: The Democrats Running for Presidentby Tony Quinn
Jan. 1, 2003
Bill Clinton proved in 1992 that California is a gold mine for Democratic presidential candidates when it comes to fundraising, and he also showed himself highly adept at getting the votes in California. Not only did Clinton become the first Democrat in a generation to carry California, he laid the groundwork for two succeeding Democratic presidential landslides in this state.
So is there a Bill Clinton among the 2004 Democratic wanna-bes? Right now it is hard to find one. Al Gore had one of his best showing in 2000 in California, but he’s not running. The rest of the field consists of candidates that currently have no base at all in this state.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts typifies the serious almost Puritanical New Englander that Californians have rejected for generations. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has the advantage of his place on the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000 but as a moralizing Democrat his appeal may be limited in this free-wheeling state. Congressman Richard Gephardt is the darling of the industrial labor unions, but California has few of the old economy industrial unions, and Gephardt opposes free trade, a sure loser in California.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has a lot of the glamour that Clinton embodied and he is southern enough to appeal to Californians. But he has one big problem: he is from North Carolina, the nation’s major tobacco state. Californians are libertarian on everything but tobacco use; you can engage in any kind of sex in this state as long as you don’t have a cigarette afterwards.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean comes from a state the size of San Joaquin County; forget him. The Rev. Al Sharpton is too anti-Jewish for California.
The long shots may have more appeal here. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida represents a state in many ways like California. And former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, if he runs a serious race, could be the only westerner in the group. His New Economy-New Politics approach could catch on here, but will he survive long enough to be taken seriously?
Unfortunately, we won’t have a California primary to find out. The state legislature changed California’s presidential primary from June to late March in 1996, and early March in 2000, hoping to restore California’s traditional role as the clean-up batter state in the presidential sweepstakes. But it did not work; the nominees of both parties were set before the California presidential primary.
California’s primary in 2004 will again be the first week in March, but the national Democratic party has so frontloaded the primary process in other states like Iowa and New Hampshire that it is very likely the contest will be decided well before California.
While the Democrats will surely raise buckets of money from rich California donors, they could well have a candidate who is untried with California voters.
It is not clear, however, that this will really matter. Baring a national landslide, it is still quite unlikely that President Bush will carry California for re-election. This is because of the way the Bush political team views the state and the nation.
They see an America now divided not on the basis of economics but on the basis of culture. They may be right. In 2000 and 2002 Republicans did spectacularly well among rural and small town voters, but poorly in many traditional Republican suburbs in northern and western states. The Bush Administration has catered to the cultural conservatism of its base voters on such issues as abortion rights, gun ownership and environmental controls. But these are not positions held by the majority of California voters.
It is probable that roughly 40 percent of Californians share the Bush Administration’s cultural conservatism, basically that part of the state away from the coast. But coastal Californians handily outweigh these inland voters, and Bush is doing little to improve his political position in places like the San Francisco Bay Area and among more liberal suburban voters.
So California should be pretty much safe for whichever Democrat emerges from the New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, etc. nominating process. But then again maybe not. Right now there is not a “natural” for California among this crowd. That could make a difference.
The Bush Administration could get a big break if the national Democrats nominate a presidential candidate untested among western voters and one who just doesn’t click with California voters. It has happened before and could happen again.