John McCain has been steadily rising in the polls for many weeks. But today, it looks like he may be on the verge of losing California–even though just one week ago he led the state. Here are a few points that could help make sense out the Golden State Republican primary.
1) Immigration. A Field Poll, the gold standard for California polling, released two weeks ago found that 40 percent of G.O.P. primary voters pegged illegal immigration as the top issue — perhaps not a surprise given that California, a border state, once embraced Proposition 187, which barred state spending on illegal immigrants and their children. Romney has courted these voters relentlessly in this campaign, consistently attacking McCain for his support of comprehensive immigration reform — or “amnesty,” in the rhetoric Romney has adopted.
Even though Romney’s own history on immigration (he registered no objections to McCain’s plan just two years ago) invites skepticism, his strategy already worked in Florida, where he won most of the “no-amnesty” vote. But in Florida, more G.O.P. primary voters favored a less drastic approach to immigration–and those voters flocked to McCain. In California’s more extreme illegal immigration political spectrum, Romney could be getting more mileage out the issue.
2) Semi-open primary. On paper, McCain should have a clear advantage in California, since independents are allowed to participate in either party’s primary. But the process of doing so is cumbersome, and most casual voters don’t know about it. Any independent voter who does not specifically request otherwise receives a non-partisan ballot that does not include the primary races. So while independents can vote in the G.O.P. primary, they don’t do so in nearly the numbers that their counterparts in states like New Hampshire do. Plus, the national perception is that McCain has pulled away from Romney, while the Clinton-Obama race is very close, so the number of independents favoring the Democratic race may be more lopsided than it was in New Hampshire.
3) Putting the brakes on McCain. There is a well-established history in both parties of candidates breaking clear of the pack, only to be hit with a surprise defeat. In 1992, Bill Clinton seemed to wrap up the Democratic nomination with convincing wins in Illinois and Michigan. But then he suffered a shocking defeat to Jerry Brown in Connecticut, where voters seemed to be saying they weren’t quite ready for Clinton’s coronation. The same thing happened to Michael Dukakis in 1988, when Michigan voted overwhelmingly for Jesse Jackson, and to Ronald Reagan in 1980, when George H.W. Bush was momentarily brought back to life with a late win in Pennsylvania. All of those front-runners went on to win the nomination, but only after returning to the ring to finish off competitors they thought were finished. Perhaps California Republicans are taking it upon themselves to put the brakes on the McCain and to extend the process for a few more weeks. The Romney-talk radio tactic of raising doubts about McCain’s party loyalty certainly encourages California Republicans to humble McCain, even if they aren’t fully sold on Romney.