Last night, Barack Obama accomplished what no insurgent presidential candidate has ever done: survive Super Tuesday. The Illinois Senator did so by amassing a broad coalition of blacks, liberals and red-state Democrats – paying off dividends across the country except in California. Hillary Clinton’s ten-point win here exceeded expectations, and such baffling returns will keep progressives guessing for days what went wrong in the Golden State. Clinton won in part because she got a large share of support from white women and Latinos – her traditional base – as well as from Asian-Americans. But Obama also got slaughtered in the Central Valley and other conservative parts of the state – defying the national trend, and confining his base to San Francisco and other liberal coastal counties. The state’s electorate was also very conservative when it came to Propositions: voters approved 4 anti-labor Indian gaming compacts, sunk a measure to fund community colleges, and (while it’s good news for progressives that Prop 93 failed) kept the status quo for term limits.
“This is a rout right now,” said Calitics blogger David Dayen last night
– when half the state’s returns showed Senator Obama losing by a 15-point margin. “These are Angelides-like numbers for Barack. Maybe you CAN'T run a ground campaign with precinct captains in California. Maybe it’s just too big.” While the gap has narrowed to 51-42% as more progressive precincts were counted overnight, the fact remains: Obama did well below expectations in California.
Obama won San Francisco 52-44, but he barely took progressive Bay Area counties like Alameda and Sonoma – and even lost San Mateo County by an 8-point margin. Looking at the overall statewide numbers, Obama performed about as well as a weak liberal can be expected to do in California – making the harsh analogy to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hapless 2006 opponent all that more appropriate.
Predictably, the media has explained that Obama lost California due to a gender gap among white women, Clinton’s 2-1 lead among Latinos, and the Asian-American vote. While much of that is true, Obama’s last-minute outreach to the Latino community – including an endorsement from La Opinion
in Los Angeles – succeeded
in making significant progress.
It’s easy to conclude that Obama “lost” because of the Latino vote in California, but he had the very best people in that community mobilize voter turnout. With Clinton’s superior name-recognition among Latinos – along with well-known leaders Antonio Villaraigosa and Dolores Huerta stumping for the establishment – Obama’s team simply faced a daunting task with very little time. Getting to know such a large community and earning their trust can’t be turned on like a faucet, and they did the best they could.
The real shocker is how badly Obama did in the more conservative parts of California. He got creamed in Fresno, Tulare and Kern Counties – and Clinton’s advantage among Latinos certainly played a factor there. But he did equally poorly in parts of the state that are politically conservative, but are overwhelmingly white. He lost Tehama County by 20 points, Shasta County by nine points and the “Gold Country” counties of Calaveras, Placer, Amador and El Dorado.
Besides strong support among progressive Democrats, Obama has proven in this election to have crossover appeal among Republicans and independents. It explains why he’s done so well in conservative parts of the country, and why he would be more electable than Clinton. I saw this first-hand while campaigning for him in northern Nevada, and it’s why he racked up huge victories last night in Idaho, Kansas, and Northern Dakota.
So why did red-state voters in other parts of the country flock to Obama – while “red-county” voters in California go with Clinton? I’m stumped – and the only theory I could give is that the Obama camp never prioritized those parts of California. With the state’s bizarre delegate-count
scheme that makes a big winning margin here practically meaningless, it was probably a wise move on their part.
It should also be considered that the California electorate this time around was actually quite conservative – despite a huge voter turnout that gave Democratic leaders bragging rights. Besides Democratic voters picking the establishment presidential candidate, the “right-wing” position in every state Proposition prevailed.
Propositions 94-97 – the four Indian gambling initiatives
– all passed by healthy margins, despite organized labor’s push to defeat them. I couldn’t believe how much direct mail I got from the “Yes” side – they clearly had money to burn – and it worked like a charm on an electorate more focused on the presidential race.
Proposition 92 – the community college
system’s attempt to remedy Governor Schwarzenegger’s holy crusade against them – went down to defeat. While the measure had its share of progressive critics, a “yes” vote was widely perceived as being pro-education.
I was glad to see Proposition 93 – the flawed term limits measure – go down to a narrow defeat, and my boss Randy Shaw had urged
progressives to reject it. But BeyondChron was a lonely voice on the Left opposing it: the state Democratic Party made its passage a priority, and the only organized opposition came from Republicans who oppose any term limits reform whatsoever.
While Clinton’s victory in California baffled progressives who had hoped to see Obama’s surge make it to the Golden State, bear in mind that we simply had a very conservative electorate last night. It took us by surprise because California is such a blue state – and a high voter turnout usually bodes well for progressives. But often the state surprises us, leaving nothing for granted when the voters go to the polls.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In his spare time and outside of work hours, Paul Hogarth volunteered at the Barack Obama campaign office in San Francisco.