California dreamin’

OK, the headline’s trite but true. And the seven Democratic presidential hopefuls preaching to the faithful at last weekend’s California Democratic Convention in San Diego underscores the point.

Democratic presidential hopefuls have historically seen California as the rich aunt of the party—great for hitting up for lots of money but not the one you take to the big dance. Democratic candidates have always raked in cold California cash to campaign for the nomination. But it’s the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other hodgepodge of Southern, mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states whose primaries have historically come earlier than California’s—usually months earlier—whom have put candidates over the top in the delegate count.

Not this time. Auntie has gotten an electoral facelift, and now she’s the potential belle of the presidential nominating ball. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. But conventional wisdom is often wrong. Despite moving near the front of the primary pack, California may well prove irrelevant yet again in picking the Democratic presidential champion for 2008. Only this time the entire primary process may have been rendered obsolete, as well.

Why so? Look at whom this front-loaded primary season—with 15 states and half of the national population casting ballots by the time California’s precincts close on Feb. 5—favors. That would be the candidate with all the early name recognition, establishment support, warehouse full of political IOUs to call in and accessible deep, deep pockets to pick necessary to be able to run flat-out from now to what has essentially become a national primary between Jan. 14 and Feb. 5.

And the only candidate matching that description is Bill Clinton.

Er, I mean Hillary.

Face it. Of the eight candidates in this Donkey race, Hillary is the Snow White (OK, Snow Hard-as-Granite White) of this tale, and the others are the dwarves. (One can have no end of fun around the family dinner table coming up with dwarf handles for them: Kucinich as Shorty, Gravel as Kooky, Edwards as Great Hairy and Obama as Oh-My-God-He’s-Got-Charisma-And-I-Would-Have-His-Love-Child-But-I-Ultimately-Have-To-Vote-My-Head-And-Go-For-Snowy.)

Hillary has the Clinton name (a point she downplays in speeches, referring Saturday to Bill only in passing), and that name’s a political machine. And she is nailing down the support of the Democratic powers that be now, nine months before the primaries start. She can pick up the hearts—or at least the votes—of the party rank-and-file later, once she’s driven everyone else from the playing field.

This was made clear on Saturday when she addressed the Democratic delegates in San Diego. The dais, chockablock with California Democratic movers and shakers, was clearly with her, party chair Art Torres leading the cheer. At her follow-up press conference Speaker Fabian Nunez and a delegation from the state Assembly endorsed her. She’s conquering the state party without firing a vote.

The delegates, however, were not so clearly on her side. She entered the hall surrounded by a phalanx of Hillaristas dressed in matching polo shirts. While the Clinton blue shirts cheered her rousingly throughout her speech, the rest of the delegates mostly gave her polite—though at times energetic—applause and a smattering of cheers. But love did not fill the room.

Not so with Barack Obama, who addressed the convention that afternoon. Prior to his speech, a mob of motivated Obama supporters stood outside the convention center cheering his name. When he came to the podium, the response of the delegates was, in a word, thunderous. His speech was by far the most energized and enthusiastically greeted of the day, with more people and press crowding the hall to witness it than had for Hillary. Clinton is a party power. Obama is a rock star. And he clearly won the hall Saturday.

Even John Edwards, given an inferior time slot Sunday morning (when many delegates were still holding their heads from the parties at the various hospitality suites the night before) got a much more emotional, supportive welcome than did the former First Lady. His calls for restoring social justice in America and restoring America’s stature in the world received standing ovations that rivaled Obama’s and outshone anything that had shined on Hillary.

If the Democratic 2008 nomination was resolved solely on the basis of a vote by delegates to the San Diego convention, my bet is you’d be looking at an Obama/Edwards ticket. Maybe Hillary would get Secretary of State.

But as the San Diego Democratic Convention goes, so the rest of the party does not. To begin with, delegates to party conventions come in stark primary colors, attended overwhelmingly by the reddest of red-staters and the bluest of the blues. The Democrats who committed to spending all of the last weekend holed up in the convention center were, in general, more liberal and, indeed, far more romantic (or pathologically obsessed, take your pick) in their conception of whom their champion should be.

With such an audience, Dennis Kucinich—a man whose national stature matches his physical but whose rhetoric (impeach the vice president, end the war now) is bloody red meat for his deep-blue-state audiences—becomes a star.

And charismatic Obama becomes a messiah.

But the diehard Democrats who went to this convention will, come November 2008, ultimately suck it up and vote for whomever the party nominates. In their partisan eyes, even the Clintons’ cat Socks would be a better choice for president than any Republican. Democratic party leaders—and Hillary—know this. So they—and she—can ignore the rank-and-file at this point in the campaign and pile on the endorsements and donors until the money gap between her and her runner-ups becomes insurmountable.

Which ultimately is Clinton’s best strategy for victory and the reason for the ridiculously early start of this primary season, which Clinton helped to trigger with her early declaration of candidacy back in January. Clinton’s other seven rivals are now forced to commit to nine months of debates, state conventions and frenzied campaign organizing—before they even get to be tested by the voters. And those who survive this political hazing will face a primary season front-loaded with big, media-costly states like California, New York and Florida, requiring the money and people to run an essentially national campaign over three frenetic weeks of primary voting.

Result: most of the candidates currently running will be left behind as political road-kill on this pre-primary Bataan death march. Which means that by next January, the Democratic field may well be reduced to three. Kucinich will still be running his no-budget sideshow, if only for the ego stroke it brings him. And a bruised Obama, bleeding money as donors desert him for the surer Clinton thing, will be pushed by the party elite to do the right thing and withdraw so the Democrats go into the primaries united behind their chosen leader.

That would, of course, be Hillary.

The Republican establishment, desperate back in 2000 to retake the White House, did much the same thing. When Republican voters in New Hampshire blew it and went for dark-horse John McCain, the party leadership rallied around the legacy candidacy of George W. and backed Bush while he eviscerated McCain in South Carolina. Pro-Hillary Democrats may well wish to do as much in 2008—albeit in a kinder, gentler manner—throwing so much support so early behind her that she runs over her rivals before the first citizens caucus in Iowa.

If that happens, then all of those who hoped moving this state’s primary forward might finally make the Golden State politically relevant will find their California dreams dashed. But so, too, would all those other states that are jockeying with each other to get to the front of the primary line. This could be the first competitive presidential nominating contest in history resolved before the first primary or caucus ballot is cast.


3 Responses to “California dreamin’”

  1. Lexing Says:

    Carl, I think you’re misreading the dynamics of this year’s nomination process, which are markedly different from years past. Look at how much money Obama raised recently– mostly through independent and small donors, though he’s also getting big-name support (e.g. Spielberg, Geffen, Katzenberg). He’s easily rivalling Hillary as it is.

    OTOH, Hillary’s war chest is often overestimated. She spent herself dry in the NY Senate race despite having almost guaranteed election, and still didn’t manage to match Eliot Spitzer’s performance.

    And furthermore, I’ve never seen a frontrunner stoke nearly as much antipathy within her own party as Hillary has. I’ve been to plenty of very non-Netroots, main street Democratic meetings where at least 1/3 and usually many more Democrats express their extreme dislike of Hillary, to the point of not voting for her under any circumstances. (And these are not people I’d disdain and dare.) Since the likely GOP nominee is the Rudy Giuliani– much less wildly conservative and more palatably mainstream than Bush– and since the check of a Democratic Congress would cushion the effects of a Giuliani presidency in any case, Democrats’ distaste for Hillary is extremely dangerous for her chances.

    Whereas Obama has enthusiastic, widespread grass-roots support. He’s lacking only in the name recognition department.

    Hillary’s has been especially hawkish on the Iraq War, on spreading war to Syria and Iran, on economic policies that favor big corporations over workers, in short are anathema to Democrats’ traditional stands. They don’t like her, and they’re not voting for her.

    This is the fundamental weakness with Hillary– among Dems, her support is a mile wide but an inch deep. Obama doesn’t yet have the breadth of support or the name recognition, yet his support is much more solid and much deeper. And since Hillary is unpopular enough to turn even solid Democrats to Third Party candidates, Democrats’ chances of winning in 2008 depend on nominating somebody like Obama or Edwards, so even if these two fall behind in the early primaries, there’s too much riding on them winning the primary for them to drop out of the running.

  2. mlaiuppa Says:

    Socks is running? (If it were Socks against Barney, who would win?)

    Actually, I think it’s Hillary that will end up bowing out under pressure and a reality check. I think the Democratic Nominating Committee, always playing it safe and taking the Bland Road, will realize that Hillary is polarizing and that too many will not vote for her for any number or reasons that don’t even matter. Hillary can’t get enough votes to win. Not enough Undecideds an be convinced to give her the winning vote.

    The committee also won’t nominate Obama for President. This country will pick a man over a woman but if given the choice between a black man and a white woman….they’ll vote Republican.

    That leaves Edwards. Hillary won’t take second fiddle but Obama will. Being VP for either one or two terms gives him the experience he’s being criticized for lacking and the incumbant edge to run as President when Edwards steps down.

    So my money is on the Edwards/Obama ticket. Edwards isn’t just a white male, he also isn’t stupid or incompetent or universally hated so he’s a safe if bland choice. Obama’s charisma and war chest will complement the ticket. And unlike Hillary, Obama *will* accept being VP on the ticket.

    That’s my prediction and I’m sticking to it.

  3. carlluna Says:

    Lexing and Mlaiuppa:

    You may both be right. But I’m trying to look at the patterns across elections. Remember, when not punditing my day job is as a political science professor. And science, even one as quasi-scientific as my field, is based on establishing patterns of behavior from which prediictions can be made. I’m not saying “why” legacy candidates tend to win over insurgent or establishment and most certainly not saying that they should in any particular case. But there is a clear pattern in recent elections that tends to support my hypothesis. Now that my day job of classes and meetings is easing for summer, I’ll have more time to do that other thing professors do: research. I’m interested to see just how well this pattern is established across the 147 years of the two-party system.

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