For more than 40 years, San Diego has been as close to a sure thing as can be found in presidential politics. As Democratic political consultant Nick Johnson puts it wryly: “The sun rises in the East, sets in the West, and San Diego votes Republican.”
No Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 has carried San Diego County. Republicans usually roll up lopsided majorities of 3 to 2 or better. Through 10 presidential elections featuring sitting presidents and challengers from both major parties, landslide winners and losers of every ideological stripe, San Diego County has been, in the words of former Rep. Clair Burgener (R-San Diego), “almost an automatic” for the Republican Party.
Question of Quantity
Considering that one-sided history, the critical question about this fall’s campaign is not whether GOP nominee George Bush will carry San Diego--even Democrats concede that is a given--but rather by how much Bush defeats Michael Dukakis in San Diego.
The answer, Republicans and Democrats agree, could be pivotal for California’s 47 electoral votes and, by extension, the outcome of the presidential race itself.
“It’s not overstating it to say that what happens in San Diego could play a big part in deciding who sits in the White House for the next four years,” said Tom Stickel, Bush’s local campaign chairman. “That’s true of a few other key states, too. But California is a must-do state, especially for Dukakis. And what happens in San Diego is going to have a lot to say about what happens in California.”
San Diego’s potential prominence in the Nov. 8 race points up a frequently obscured fact about presidential elections.
Because of the Electoral College’s winner-take-all approach in each state, a presidential election is tantamount to 50 separate races. With California’s 47 electoral votes being the largest single bloc in the nation, representing more than one-sixth of the 270 needed for victory, San Diego’s votes are significant only insofar as they affect the statewide outcome.
Since World War II, San Diego has been exceptionally friendly political turf for GOP presidential candidates. In the last 44 years, Harry Truman in 1948 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964 were the only Democrats who were not badly beaten in San Diego. Johnson lost to Barry Goldwater 214,445 votes to 211,808, even as he was elected in a landslide nationally.
In the last two elections, President Reagan, who considers San Diego his lucky city and has concluded each of his successful gubernatorial and presidential campaigns in the city, carried San Diego 2 to 1, beating both Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale by nearly a quarter of a million votes.
Reagan’s victory margin provides an important benchmark for both the Dukakis and Bush campaigns this year. While Bush supporters hope to match or at least come close to Reagan’s 245,000-vote margin of four years ago--a goal they concede is difficult--the Dukakis camp would be content to whittle down the ratio.
Those goals illustrate the divergent perspectives of the two campaigns, as well as the role that San Diego historically plays in statewide races. Under the Bush campaign’s political game plan, San Diego and Orange counties, along with some smaller adjoining regions, constitute what Bill Lacy, Bush’s state chairman, calls “the Republican heartland” in California. It is in San Diego that Bush and other GOP statewide candidates hope to build a huge vote surplus to offset Democratic strength elsewhere.
Not Enough to Win
In order for their political equation to add up to a Bush victory in California, local Bush supporters realize that it is not enough to simply win in San Diego. Instead, they know they must win big.
“You might say that San Diego and Orange County are hitting third and fourth in the lineup,” Stickel said. “Other parts of the state will get the men on base, but we’re the ones who have to get them home. That’s been made clear to us from the get-go. The bat’s going to be in our hands when the game’s on the line.”
Tina Hester, Dukakis’ regional director, insists that the Democrats “haven’t given up yet” on carrying San Diego--a remark that appears somewhat disingenuous in light of political history and recent polls showing Bush winning easily.
A more candid assessment comes from consultant Johnson, who said that Dukakis, like other Democrats, would be “ahead of the game if he comes out of San Diego not bleeding too badly.” Other top local Democratic Party officials have said privately that they would be delighted to hold Bush’s San Diego majority to less than half of Reagan’s 1984 margin, which still would leave Bush with a 100,000 vote-plus bulge in San Diego.
Thus, while the Republicans want a landslide victory in San Diego, the Democrats would accept a loss as long as the deficit “doesn’t dig a hole too big to climb out of” with expected Democratic majorities in San Francisco and elsewhere, explained Democratic Central Committeeman Henry Auerbach.
“We don’t need to win San Diego to win the state,” added Byron Georgiou, Dukakis’ San Diego chairman. “From our position, closing that gap in San Diego is what we have to do. And I think we can reduce it dramatically.”
Although both sides studiously resist being pinned down to numerical targets, recent election results help to fashion rough estimates.
Even many local Republicans, skeptical of Bush’s chances of equaling Reagan’s home state vote-drawing power, expect the result to be somewhat less lopsided in San Diego than in 1980 and 1984.
‘It’s Going to Be Tough’
“Reagan’s finish is a very lofty goal,” said San Diego County Republican chairman Earl Cantos Jr. “Realistically, it’s going to be tough to reach, but we’d like to come as close as we could.”
The GOP’s incentive to “run up the score in San Diego"--to use another Stickel sports analogy--stems in part from the 1986 U.S. Senate race, in which Democratic Sen. Alan Cranton narrowly defeated Republican Ed Zschau. Although Zschau carried San Diego, 317,349 votes to 245,282, that 72,000-vote margin was wiped out by Cranston’s strength elsewhere, as Cranston won by about 105,000 votes out of the nearly 7.2 million cast statewide.
“There’s no way that we can afford to leave Bush with the same level of support that Ed Zschau was left with here,” Stickel said. “We can’t drop the ball on this one. We’ve got to win big. Real big.”
Stating the obvious, Bush California chairman Lacy notes that the precise way in which San Diego fits into next month’s political mosaic hinges on vote totals elsewhere. However, using the 1984 and 1986 results as guideposts, leaders in both parties suggest that Bush could be in serious trouble statewide if his victory in San Diego does not reach six figures.
“If Bush doesn’t win San Diego comfortably . . . you can forget California,” Burgener said. “It’s that simple.”
Both the Bush and Dukakis camps find myriad reasons to be encouraged about their prospects in San Diego this fall.
With history and demographics on their side, the Republicans are comforted by their 46.5%-39.9% advantage among the county’s 1.2 million registered voters--a gap usually widened in elections by the GOP’s traditionally higher turnout.
Bush’s staunch pro-defense posture seems an obvious asset in a county with a prominent military presence, and Stickel argues that “moral value issues” that Bush has injected into the campaign--among them, his criticism of Dukakis’ veto of a law requiring recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in classrooms--will strike a chord in San Diego.
Moreover, with former San Diego mayor, now Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) running for reelection next month, Stickel speculates that Bush may be able to “piggyback” on Wilson’s local strength in a kind of reverse coattail effect.
The Democrats, meanwhile, hope that Dukakis’ strong opposition to offshore oil drilling will appeal to environmentally sensitive San Diegans and view his social and economic policies as well-suited to a city with a growing homeless problem and a cost of living among the highest in the nation. And, although the controversy over Bush’s selection of Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate is hardly a local issue, San Diego Democrats argue that the “Quayle factor” will reduce the Republicans’ traditional strength.
Local Democrats also are optimistic about--if somewhat at a loss to explain--what they describe as the unusual ardor that the Dukakis campaign has inspired in San Diego. At one recent weekend rally, nearly 900 volunteers packed Dukakis’ headquarters.
“I’ve never seen that kind of energy level for a national campaign here before,” Democratic San Diego City Councilman Bob Filner said.
Similarly, with Dukakis remaining close to Bush in national polls, local Democratic congressional and Assembly candidates, many of whom sought to distance themselves from their national ticket during the 1980 and 1984 debacles, have embraced the Dukakis campaign this year, cooperating in developing get-out-the-vote plans and other strategies.
Although their San Diego goals may be at opposite poles numerically, both the Dukakis and Bush camps have mounted aggressive local campaigns, evidenced in part by the frequency with which the two candidates have visited the city. Both Bush and Dukakis have made multiple appearances in San Diego, and each is expected to make several more before Nov. 8.
The Republican campaign is two-pronged, with duties split between the Bush-Quayle organization itself and Victory ’88, a statewide GOP group with local branches. The Bush-Quayle team, headed locally by financier Stickel and banking executive Gordon Luce, is charged with getting out the campaign’s message by planning the candidates’ San Diego appearances and speakers’ bureau. Designed to complement those programs while minimizing duplication of effort, Victory ’88 oversees nuts and bolts of the GOP campaign, including voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives.
On the Democratic side, the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee managed the party’s registration drive and already has started a get-out-the-vote campaign aimed at getting those newly registered Democrats to the polls on Election Day. The Dukakis-Bentsen camp, meanwhile, has targeted 939 precincts, about 57% of the county’s total, aimed at reaching voters whom Dukakis regional director Hester describes as “occasional Democrats.”
Going After Democrats
“We’re not going to waste time trying to persuade Republicans, or even independents,” Hester said. “Any Democrat who’s voted in the last three primaries won’t be contacted either, because we know we’ve got them. We’re going after people who are registered as Democrats but don’t always vote.”
The Republicans have their own plan for increasing GOP turnout, one that, from Stickel’s perspective, is at once less complicated and immeasurably more dramatic than the Democrats’ idea: an election-eve appearance in San Diego by President Reagan.
“While ‘Win one for the Gipper’ perhaps doesn’t mean a lot anymore in some places, it certainly still has a tremendous impact in San Diego,” Stickel said. “That’s our wild card, one that the Democrats can’t match. They’ve got to be afraid of that.”
Stickel has not received a commitment from Bush’s national strategists for his plan, and acknowledges that the likelihood of a Reagan San Diego appearance next month hinges on the presidential campaign’s status in California and other key electoral states in the closing days.
However, as he contemplated the prospect of Reagan appearing, Stickel got so excited that he began mixing his sports metaphors in summarizing San Diego’s election role.
“It’s like coming to bat in a clutch situation, and it’s our job to put some big numbers up on the scoreboard,” he said. “They don’t want us coming in kicking a field goal with time running out to win by 1 point. That’s not acceptable. We don’t want an exciting, close game. We want a runaway victory.”
In keeping with the spirit of that analogy, consultant Johnson provided the Democrats’ counterpoint.
“When you’re a Democrat in San Diego County, you get used to losing,” Johnson said. “You just don’t want to get shut out.”