Analysis:: California’s politics, unlike New York’s, are mainly a TV affair
It’s a shame that Donald Trump canceled his Friday appearance at his golf course on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. It would have been the perfect California political event: the swell of green undulating toward the Pacific, a blissful view of the blue ocean beneath the cliffs.
“The pinnacle of nature and opulence” the Trump National Golf Club calls itself on its website, which features a prominent golfing picture of the man for whom the place is named.
At least it would have been the perfect stereotype of a California political event. The reality is that California political events are not exactly up to snuff compared with those in other states. The upcoming Republican and Democratic primaries — the first to really matter in California in, oh, 44 years — will give the state a chance to show off. Let’s not hold our breath.
In just the span of 48 hours after Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary thrust the campaign into New York, that state has offered a primo example of how to do a presidential primary.
A visit by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to a Bronx school was scrapped after threats of student protests, and he was insulted by the tabloids after a mostly voter-less visit to a matzo factory. Trump, a state resident, appeared at a massive rally on Long Island where he piled on Cruz by reminding his audience that in a debate earlier this year, Cruz had insulted “New York values.” That prompted a new round of insults by Cruz, who insisted that all along he had meant New York City values — code for liberal and a few other things — distinctions he hadn’t made until the election got to the state.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also was treated to a blistering cover in the New York Daily News — “Bernie’s Sandy Hook Shame” — after he said in an interview with the paper’s editorial board that he opposed the right of families of victims in the 2012 Connecticut school massacre to sue the manufacturer of the gun used in the killings.
Sanders then went off on Hillary Clinton after telling his audience that she had said he was not qualified to be president. She hadn’t actually said that, but Sanders apparently thought she had and declared that her Wall Street ties, vote for the Iraq war and campaign fundraising meant she was the unqualified one.
Clinton got her revenge the next day when she showed up at Yankee Stadium and ceremoniously took the subway a few stops to elsewhere in the Bronx — netting two New York City icons in one swoop. She campaigned in the borough while trailed by the boisterous New York press corps.
She didn’t wholly escape the criticism that comes with a New York primary, however, as conflict erupted over whether the multiple Metrocard swipes she needed to get onto the subway indicated a defect in her character or the card’s. (The visit itself was a smarting rejoinder to Sanders’ statement in the editorial board meeting that tokens are used on the subway. They haven’t been for more than a decade, and the answer was taken to suggest the Brooklyn-born candidate was out of touch with his home city.)
The New York primary, in short, evokes a certain reverence for drama. There are visits to upstate and elsewhere, like Clinton’s on Friday to Charlie the Butcher, a venerable Buffalo restaurant where she ordered beef-on-weck (roast beef on a soft roll) and reminded people she’s been there many times before. But it is Manhattan that is the most glorious backdrop, with enough famous places to mine for political effect as you’d find on a season of “Law & Order.”
Then there’s California.
We have our stereotypes, sure, but few of them end up as the focus of a campaign. In New York, candidates can jump on the subway to visually demonstrate their one-ness with the common folk. To do the same in California, they’d have to jump, alone, into a car stranded on the 5 Freeway and curse the time it takes to get anywhere.
Part of the problem is that the state’s general indifference to politics — save for the Bay Area — has been reflected in its political events. There is that rare exception, such as Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari’s 2014 visit to a gay rights parade in San Diego, which more than anything else underscored his attempt to remake the state GOP’s image. He got little benefit, as he was doomed to fall to incumbent Democrat Jerry Brown, who barely campaigned.
California’s Republican campaign events tend to be focused on small businesses. Democrats hang out at union halls. What those have in common are captive audiences. There is the occasional hotel rally or jaunt to In-N-Out to talk to voters not pre-screened or pre-assembled, but those events are few and far between.
The high point for California drama was the 2003 recall, during which Arnold Schwarzenegger transferred a certain cinematic flair to politics. He announced his candidacy on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” During the campaign, a car was crushed by a wrecking ball to evince his opposition to an increase in the car registration tax; another time, a giant spigot spewing red liquid stood in for his objections to state spending.
But that race was a two-month sprint; typical campaigns here are multi-year events in which candidates of necessity spend more time in the living rooms of wealthy donors than talking to voters. They do that to finance the voter outreach efforts and — mostly — the television commercials that are the only real ways to communicate in a state with 17 million-plus voters — topping New York by more than 6 million.
All of the presidential candidates will make appearances here, repeatedly, before the June 7 primary. Cruz plans events Monday in Orange County and San Diego. Maybe the competitive nature of the contests will change how the candidates campaign. If not, chances are you’ll only see them on the television screen.
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