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Election 2008: Previewing the California Primaries

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Sherry Jeffe
Senior Scholar, School of Policy, Planning and Development, University of Southern California
Monday, February 4, 2008; 1:00 PM

Former Los Angeles Times and California Journal columnist Sherry Jeffe, who also has provided analysis to Washington's NBC4, was online Monday, Feb. 4 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions on California's Super Tuesday primaries, how they're likely to play out and how things look in the state for November.

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The transcript follows.

Jeffe currently is a senior scholar at the University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development.

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Sherry Jeffe: Hi. I'm looking forward to your questions. Things are just moving fast in California.

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Washington: how many Independents are expected to vote in the Democratic primary, and what percentage of them does Obama get in polls?

Sherry Jeffe: Well, it's interesting. Early on Clinton really got the larger percentage of Independents, but in the last field poll Obama has 54 percent, Clinton 32 and 11 percent still are undecided. So we are now following the national trend. Independents are roughly 20 percent of the electorate in California, and they can only vote in the Democratic primary, because the Republican primary is closed. That's not helpful to John McCain, and it looks like it could be very helpful to Barack Obama if those independents come out to vote.

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McLean, Va.: Can you tell us the status of the effort in California to change the way delegates are awarded in the general election. It seems like this is even more important than whom the nominees are.

Sherry Jeffe: Dead. Really dead. It became apparent that it probably doesn't make sense on either side of the aisle for the largest state to divide itself up and make it somewhat less powerful in the final results of the November election. Only two small states -- nine electoral votes -- do it that way now, and it would be nuts for a 55 electoral-vote state to do the same. The Democrats just would not have it. There are rumors it'll come around again, but I haven't seen the polls on that initiative.

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Dr. Popenoe, can this marriage be saved?: Maria Shriver's endorsed Obama, while California's Governator is backing McCain? Also, I saw where Ethel Kennedy is joining brother-in-law Ted and niece Caroline in backing Obama, while three of her own kids have endorsed Hillary. How do political families handle such differences of opinion?

Sherry Jeffe: I would love to be a guest at the next Kennedy family holiday dinner. It probably will make for some lively conversation. When Gov. Schwarzenegger talks about visiting "Uncle Teddy" he says there is lively debate. I'm sure they have a lot of fun. There's an even more interesting split between Linda and Loretta Sanchez, two congressmen who have endorsed Obama and Clinton respectively. They both say they're lobbying every other member of their family. I just heard this morning that the wife of Rep. Charlie Rangel, who endorsed Clinton, has endorsed Obama. It's like a soap opera. Who cares about the writer's strike when you've got this?

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Anonymous: Let's assume it's a close race, as many polls seem to show; what would the delegate apportionment look like with one candidate winning by 3 percent to 5 percent?

Sherry Jeffe: It is extremely complex and I have no idea because there's a formula used on the Democratic side using proportional representation based on congressional districts, each of which has between three and six delegates up for grabs, then there are roughly 129 other delegates apportioned by the statewide vote, and then there are the superdelegates -- officeholders appointed by virtue of that office. Given that arithmetic, it's possible the winner of the statewide vote would not win the most delegates. There's an awfully good graphic in Los Angeles Times showing that -- sorry to promote another paper.

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Anonymous: Have you seen any improvement in the ability of the Obama campaign to sell itself to Latino voters?

Sherry Jeffe: that's a very good question. I think they have begun concentrating a bit more. I think quite frankly that in terms of older Latinos the Ted Kennedy endorsement was very positive. I spoke with a friend who covered the Nevada caucuses for the largest Spanish-speaking paper in the country -- has endorsed Obama, by the way -- who had complaints from caucusgoers that Obama just didn't get Hispanics and were rude, demanding union leaders to keep in line. Maybe the Obama campaign has learned from that -- they're not going to cede any of Clinton's core constituencies to her, they're going to try and make inroads there. Obama also has the support of Maria Elena Durazo who leads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a very respected member of the Latino community. Of course, Clinton has been running ads with Robert Kennedy Jr. and the grandson of Cesar Chavez, which are pretty interesting and can be pretty powerful.

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Kensington, Md.: Has early voting been factored into the many polls covering California? Thank you.

Sherry Jeffe: Apparently so. The field poll is measuring both polling booth votes and vote-by-mail votes. The conventional wisdom is that because the Clinton campaign targeted those early voters that that will be her cushion in California. I'm sure the campaigns themselves have figured out how to get the opinions of absentee voters -- which may be as much as 50 percent of the vote total here on Tuesday. When you see the very early returns coming in, they are the early absentee ballots -- you can start counting those as early as a week before the election, but when the traditional ballots come in you have to lay the absentee ballots aside and count the rest of them later. It's going to be an awfully long night in California. I know for instance there are people who have voted for John Edwards and others for Rudy Giuliani, and those votes are cast, they don't have another vote. It's been within the past couple of decades absentee voting has skyrocketed. We've never had a 50 percent absentee vote turnout, it's just astonishing.

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Washington: Is there any movement to eliminate early voting in states like California (and presumably there are others)? I can't imagine voting early, unless I absolutely had to vote absentee -- what if I had voted early for Edwards or Kucinich, for example? Seems like it's providing convenience at an unacceptable cost. Is there any sense that people would like to get rid of this? I assume it's a state decision based on state law to allow for early voting for anyone.

Sherry Jeffe: I know of none. I know best about California and it hasn't even been brought up. Reports are from various registrars that this year people are holding back their absentee ballots. The registrars are assuming that the bulk of them are coming in very late or may even be brought into polling places on election day. Less than half of the 5.5 million absentee ballots requested statewide have come in by this past week, so there's still a lot of people holding out until the last minute. they've got to be in the hands of election officials by election day -- a postmark won't do.

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Boston: Is California the origin of the term "Bradley effect"? Still matter?

Sherry Jeffe: Yes, California is the state that originated that. It was something researched and discovered by the founding director of the Los Angeles Times poll. It was found in 1969 when Tom Bradley ran against the incumbent L.A. mayor. He put together a coalition of liberals, west side residents and the black community. Polls indicated he would be elected, but lo and behold George Deukmejian won. So the poll director did some number crunching and came to the conclusion that there's a built-in five to 10 percent of voters who will tell a pollster -- because it's politically correct -- would say they were voting for the black candidate, then didn't in the privacy of the voting booth. There's a debate about whether that still stands, and there hasn't been a lot of follow up research, but from what I've seen it does still exist.

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Rockville, Md.: There are a number of propositions on tomorrow's ballot as well. Will the contested nature of both primaries have an impact on those propositions?

Sherry Jeffe: Very good question. I can see the contested nature -- particularly on the Democrats -- having an impact possibly on proposition 93, which was endorsed late in the game by Schwarzenegger after being created by the Democratic legislator. It decreases the number of years a legislator may spend in the California legislature from 14 to 12 years, but it allows legislators to spend them anywhere instead of forcing them to split it between the two houses. This would allow Fabian Nunez, the speaker, and the president pro-tem in the Senate would have considerably more time in their seats because of this; the republican leader in the Senate also would have another term. The opponents call it a power-grab by politicians in Sacramento. Now, if the Democrats can target their voters to vote yes on 93, and turnout patterns are maintained, it could make a big difference. As for the other propositions, I don't know -- there's not the same partisan allegiance on them.

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Washington: What do you think of the impact of the UCLA rally? To me, it seemed pitch-perfect, with a particularly brilliant appearance by Michelle Obama. ... I'm just thinking it may have been more effective if it had been held maybe a week ago...

Sherry Jeffe: You never know, quite frankly. It was effective. I will tell you, Maria Shriver's appearance was the story of the day out here. She overtook Oprah and Bill Clinton's "mea culpa tour" to black churches in Los Angeles. The bulk of the media that came to the rally was particularly about the first lady's endorsement of Obama. From what I have seen it was a fairly energetic, electric event, and you could argue that coming so soon before the election actually could motivate the Obama base in a way it might not have a week ago. It's get out the vote time now.

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Washington: Because this seems to be just about the only delegate rich state Romney can win tomorrow, what has he been doing to improve his chances? His ads haven't apparently been hitting McCain at all. Are California Republicans as anti-illegal immigration as much of the rest of the GOP?

Sherry Jeffe: The party base in California is as anti-illegal immigrant as the base nationwide, but there are many Republican leaders in this state who understand how hurtful the harsh rhetoric has been to GOP chances in the state -- the Latino vote is critical to both parties, so there's a fight going on within the party about the issue of immigration and the rhetoric around it. In the end I think there's a healthy percentage of voters who agree with the more moderate position of John McCain. As for what Romney's doing, he's coming back tonight on an unscheduled stop. I also hear the Romney campaign is focusing on targeting Democratic congressional districts, where he might only need 8,000 delegates to win three delegates. His one ad I've seen so far astonishes me because he doesn't attack McCain -- he attacks Hillary. He's arguing he's Ronald Reagan's natural heir, the true conservative, but I find it bizarre that he's targeting Clinton in the primary.

Sherry Jeffe: That's not that different from Obama's tactics -- he's approaching every one of the congressional districts as a caucus, looking at the delegate count rather than the popular vote. Of course, things are getting so tight now overall that he might change that strategy.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Thanks for taking questions. The Democrats in California have opened their primary to independents, a potentially substantial block of voters. Presumably, based on voting from earlier states, this should boost Obama. Is there any sense about how large a turnout their will be among these voters and how much they will affect the outcome?

Sherry Jeffe: The lead that Obama has had, the significant lead, is to some extent because of these nonpartisan voters -- as I mentioned he's got 54 percent of them to Clinton's 32 percent. It may well for Obama come down to turnout among Independent voters. I'm sure that both campaigns have those figures; I haven't seen any turnout estimates with regard to independents only. But you can be sure Obama is targeting them and dragging them out to vote for him.

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Washington: Really far ahead, yada, yada yada, but does McCain have a shot at picking up the state in the general election?

Sherry Jeffe: Yes, quite frankly, he does have a shot. Never underestimate the ability of the Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. California is so hungry for change, that on the national you have to say the better chance lies with the democrats, but McCain is well thought of and has a lot of former constituents who seem to gravitate toward San Diego. He's a maverick and we like mavericks; he's a moderate and we tolerate moderates. So it's not inconceivable.

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Fairfax, Va.: Who needs this win more -- Romney or Obama?

Sherry Jeffe: I would say Romney only because Obama can win even if he doesn't get the popular vote. In a lot of ways it's like the mixed decision in Nevada. If he comes close he's in better shape than Romney would be. The bigger miracle at this point would be Romney snatching California from McCain.

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Arlington, Va.: How conservative are the Republicans in Northern California, generally? Could Romney, for instance, do really well in Southern Cal among more traditional conservative Republicans, but let McCain take more moderate Republicans up north, and still come out with a decent delegate count?

Sherry Jeffe: I'd have to think about the math of that to be perfectly frank. Southern California has the lion's share of the congressional delegation. Looking at the central valley, it could well be fruitful for Romney. Northern California has 40 percent of the population ... let me see if I can figure out the regional breakdown ... I don't see it in the field poll. I don't know the answer to that question without looking closely at the map, and I can't seem to find the map. I'll see if I can bring 'em up.

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Baltimore: Do pollsters account for the fact that only the Republican primary will be closed? That is, do they restrict their polling in the Republican race to registered Republicans, while not restricting the Democratic polling?

Sherry Jeffe: Yes, and at this point we're so close they would restrict it to Republican likely voters. You want to focus because everyone knows who's running and has had a chance to analyze their choices.

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Los Angeles: Uh-oh! California is swinging to Obama! When does Bill Clinton arrive to start his Los Angeles-to-San Francisco finger-wagging campaign?

Sherry Jeffe: He's here! He's in Santa Ana today, but he spent all day Sunday touring the black churches around Los Angeles. It wasn't finger-wagging -- it was quite conciliatory. The campaign realizes his remarks in South Carolina did some damage to the Senator, and not just among blacks.

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Sherry Jeffe: Regarding the regions -- Southern California in a field poll from the third accounts for 61 percent of the electorate. McCain gets 32 percent there, Romney 26, Huckabee 12, Paul 10, undecided 14.

Northern California among likely voters -- McCain 33, Romney 21, Huckabee 14, Paul 10, undecided 17.

Now, that's total vote -- you don't know what strategies are being used by the candidates, but it appears to me that McCain is fairly well supported throughout.

The new geography of California is coastal vs. inland. Coastal is more affluent, less minority, more liberal; according the field poll that's 65 percent of the electorate. Among then, 32 percent McCain, 23 percent Romney, 12 percent Huckabee, 10 Paul and 17 percent undecided.

For inland California, which is 35 percent of Republican likely voters, it's McCain 31, Romney 26, Huckabee 15, Paul 11, and undecided 20.

So that really tells you more about California than the traditional north south breakdown. I have to tell you that in general the field poll shows an incredibly high percentage of undecideds in the election. There are those who argue it's got to be a bad poll because those numbers are so high -- 18 percent among Democrats and 15 percent among Republicans. I think a lot of people are just holding back, but it's an awfully high percentage for so late in the campaign.

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Chicago: During last week's Democratic debate -- I thought it was very interesting that when Obama gave "real life" examples of people he had met (a woman trying to afford health care, a business person, etc.) he cited examples from other states, whereas Clinton's seemed to be California-based (i.e., the Drew Medical Center). Does that make an impact on California voters?

Sherry Jeffe: I think it definitely was a strategy by Clinton -- it wasn't just health care, she had several California-centric specific examples. It was a strategy she used on purpose, and I would guess that for some Californians it did have an impact. It signaled that she knew something about the state. But it's not going to be a deciding factor in anyone's vote one way or the other.

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Chicago: Good morning and thanks for chatting. Yesterday on "Meet the Press" James Carville said that it would be "really bad" if Hillary lost California. Do you agree with that assessment? Or do you think Carville is just spinning for the person he wants to win, so that if Hillary wins by even a sliver, she is beating expectations? Also on the subject of California, what if Hillary wins narrowly but only because of votes cast weeks ago?

Sherry Jeffe: Lowering expectations. Both points are true, and I think the Clinton people are being smart by lowering expectations. The momentum now as I feel it is with Obama in this state. If she loses California that could cripple whatever momentum she might have and certainly intensify whatever momentum Obama is gaining. I don't believe her campaign thinks she *can* lose California, although polls are indicating it's a possibility.

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Anonymous: Jeez, those poll results are surprising -- I thought Romney had started to close the gap! Looks like he's headed toward another second place finish ... and a pretty distant one at that.

Sherry Jeffe: There's second place, and then there's *second* place. I think what the Romney campaign is doing is looking at the delegate hunt -- McCain could take the popular vote, but Romney could make a better showing in terms of the total delegates he wins. The primary is winner-take-all by congressional district, so whoever gets one more vote in a district gets those three delegates. So could Huckabee -- if he focused on a few significantly conservative districts. It doesn't look to me that either nomination will be decided tomorrow on the basis of California. There's also a few delegates for the statewide win, but not nearly so many for the number on the Democratic side.

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Alexandria: Is there any base of support for Mike Huckabee out in California? Will he get more or less than 7 percent tomorrow?

Sherry Jeffe: If there is a base of support for Huckabee, it's in these rural Northern California conservative districts, a couple in the Inland Empire near Palm Springs. He hasn't had much of a presence out here. He now has an ad running. You can take a look at the evangelical communities out here. There's not quite so sophisticated a home-school network as he found out in Iowa. He says he's going to stay in until the nomination has been won, and he could accumulate a few delegates. Right now the field poll has him at 13 percent, but I'm wondering if he can keep it in double digits to be honest. I'm not sure how many of those strongly conservative voters are going to come out, particularly as some think McCain has the state locked up (I don't think he does). People do listen to talk radio out here and they have a concentrated anti-McCain message right now, so that might help Romney. Most of the Republicans in this state, except for a small hard-right cadre really want a candidate who can win a defeat Hillary Clinton.

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Portland, Ore.: Can we expect Clinton to do well in the big cities and Obama to do well across the more Republican hinterlands? Also, how angry does the gay community remain with Obama for his campaigning with the "cured" gospel singer?

Sherry Jeffe: I'm not sure I've gotten that drumbeat out here, but I've talked to a couple of my gay and lesbian friends, and they're all over the map with regard to their endorsements. There's a natural affinity toward the Clintons who have been very good on gay and lesbian issues. David Mixner, who broke with Bill Clinton over his AIDS policy quite some time ago, has endorsed Obama. I don't sense any residue or acrimony. They'll be torn to some degree by ethnicity or gender, but again, they're so hungry to get the Republicans out of the White House that they really just want someone who can win.

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Sherry Jeffe: I appreciate all of the questions. It really thrills me that there's so much interest in and knowledge of California and California politics. It's great. We don't feel forgotten anymore!

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