When the long strange trip of the 2016 Republican primary rolls into California in June, a rich cache of 172 delegates will be up for grabs. That's 14% of the 1,237 total needed to secure the nomination.
Donald Trump is unlikely to lose his lead, even if Ted Cruz can replicate this week's big win in Wisconsin. So it would seem that California Republicans will wield the decisive blow: Will Trump reach 1,237 or not?
In the arcane world of delegate selection, each state party has its own rules and California's are about as convoluted as they come. The state GOP really holds 53 mini-primaries, one in each congressional district. In each, three delegates are awarded to whoever gets a plurality of votes. Of the remaining 13 delegates, 10 are awarded to the candidate who wins statewide and three are superdelegates who are members of the Republican National Committee.
In this huge and diverse state with 5.2 million registered Republicans, this particular primary format makes it highly unlikely that any of the candidates will walk away with the bulk of California delegates. For Trump, that probably means falling short of the nomination, and an open convention to follow.
Candidates simply can't blanket California in ads or appearances like they might a smaller state. Indeed, expensive statewide campaign commercials would be of little value, given the district-driven voting format. Instead of a handful of speeches in major venues, candidates will have to strategically target congressional districts where they are likely to prevail. The battle for California will be political hand-to-hand combat.
For this reason, Cruz, who has demonstrated a superior ground game elsewhere, may do much better than expected. He should capture the evangelically tilted Central Valley districts, parts of Orange County, and the far north where rural voters like his stance on gun rights. Kasich will find support where more business- and defense-minded Republicans live: San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, as well as districts in San Diego and western Los Angeles counties. We can expect Trump to pull ahead in mostly white, blue-collar congressional districts, such as in eastern Los Angeles County, desert communities, Orange County and parts of eastern Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
And yet predicting how delegates will be apportioned is all but impossible. Statewide polls are of little use in forecasting the results in each congressional district. Whether a candidate wins the district by a whisker or a landslide, he will still accumulate three delegates. Multiply this scenario by 53 and the actual collection of delegates may or may not be close to what polls are forecasting.
What we do know, however, is that the 53 districts are so different from one another that it is highly unlikely that any candidate, including Trump, will run the table.
Denying Trump a majority of national delegates might be, for some, its own kind of victory. But overall, a fractured outcome means that despite having the largest number of delegates anywhere, California once again doesn't get to throw its weight around.
Still, the state's Republican delegates could have the final say. Under California's Republican party rules, if the party nominee isn't chosen by the second ballot at the national convention, each delegate is free to vote as he or she wishes. As the largest voting bloc, the Californians could potentially band together and sway the final outcome.
California has a long history of its political parties fracturing over philosophical extremism, competing racial and ethnic differences, and stark geographic contrasts. Given so many sources of division, any sudden unity in the California delegation would be a remarkable and unprecedented change in political behavior. But then, again, so far 2016 has been a remarkable year.
Larry N. Gerston is political science professor emeritus at San Jose State University and the author of "Not So Golden After All: The Rise and Fall of California."
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