The race for California

Clinton and Obama battle for a mother lode of delegates -- in a state with a nonwhite Latino, Asian, black majority. Who has figured out the electoral math?

Published February 5, 2008 1:51PM (EST)

If Hillary Clinton pulls off a win in California Tuesday, you'll be able to look back and see a large share of the reason onstage with her at the Orpheum Theater Friday night in San Francisco. Clinton came out to a packed fundraiser flanked by a rainbow of state leaders -- Controller John Chiang (California's highest-ranking Asian elected official), state Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, along with a token white leader, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Earlier that day Barack Obama had been represented in Oakland by locally beloved Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy and the city's popular, famously antiwar Rep. Barbara Lee. It was a happy, high-energy event. But oddly, in an election Obama has framed as being about the future, Kennedy and Lee evoked California's race-relations past in ebony and ivory. While Kennedy is said to help Obama with Latino voters, who are overwhelmingly for Clinton, one might wonder why the campaign used a white stand-in rather than a real, live Latino leader. Indeed, he gave a shout out to César Chávez's nephew Federico, who supports Obama (his late uncle's union, the United Farm Workers, endorsed Clinton), but there were no Latinos or Asians onstage with him and Lee.

By Sunday the Obama camp had gotten better with its imagery, and added Los Angeles labor powerhouse Maria Elena Durazo to a starry women's outreach event at UCLA that had been billed as featuring Caroline Kennedy, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Yet Durazo's late addition to the lineup was symbolic of the campaign's comparatively late understanding of the centrality of California's Latino vote to Tuesday's outcome.

California accounts for more than one-fifth of the delegates up for grabs nationwide in Tuesday's Democratic primaries and caucuses. A Democratic candidate who hopes to be successful in California has to acknowledge its modern demographic realities: Whites now account for less than half the state's population, and African-Americans are just 7 percent. Asians are now 12 percent of the population, while Latinos make up more than a third. On Tuesday, Latinos will constitute as much as a quarter of the Democratic electorate. In running well among whites and Asians, and in commanding a 2-to-1 majority of support from Latinos, who are now the state's second-biggest ethnic voting bloc, Clinton seems to have figured out California's electoral math.

But will the roster of multiracial elected officials Clinton has amassed behind her, symbolized on that stage Friday night, be enough? California was supposed to be Clinton's Super Tuesday firewall, but it's folly to talk about a firewall this far into a historic election in which Obama's strong appeal has taken her campaign, and much of the nation, by surprise. The last firewall Clinton supporters hyped was New Hampshire, where a 20-point lead turned into a double-digit deficit in a matter of weeks after Obama won Iowa on Jan. 3.

On the other hand, Clinton ultimately squeaked out a win in New Hampshire, after she was declared dead. Likewise, in California her once-devastating 30-point lead over Obama has evaporated into a dead heat, according to several recent polls, and Obama has clearly prevented Clinton from looting California's rich trove of delegates. She is still, however, expected to pull it out. And if she does, her not-so-secret weapons will be Latinos and women, as well as the early endorsements she banked back when she looked inevitable. If she loses here, it will be because even the rainbow coalition of leaders she assembled around her could not deliver the votes of their constituencies, once they got swept up in the wave of the cross-racial political participation inspired by Obama.

The handful of Clinton and Obama partisans I trust in California said the same thing: She'll probably win, but narrowly. Newsom, San Francisco's mayor, staked his confidence on Clinton's "phenomenal" campaign to sign up supporters to vote by mail, which rolled out just as she grabbed her surprise win in New Hampshire, giving the New York senator and her campaign workers an ornery back-from-the-dead momentum. Yet the latest Field Poll showed that Obama and Clinton are tied among voters who already cast their absentee ballots by mail; 17 percent of those voters, though, remain undecided (you can drop off your absentee ballot on Election Day), a figure that matches the rest of the state.

Clinton also banked an early lead with elected officials, many of whom went for her out of genuine love and loyalty, and some of whom may have jumped before they could see Obama had real traction. Either way, they've stood by her. Dellums, who has gotten flak for not backing the first serious black presidential candidate, praised her to the skies in San Francisco Friday night, telling the crowd that he got tears in his eyes reading Clinton's platform for urban America. Villaraigosa has likewise been stalwart, if not teary-eyed, even though he told me he's gotten a lot of grief from supporters and constituents angry he wasn't supporting the Obama "movement." I ran into him stumping for Clinton in Manchester, N.H., while we both waited to be on MSNBC, on Jan. 8. The New Hampshire primary started out as one of the darkest days for her campaign. Before Mayor Villaraigosa and I were on-air, Tim Russert and Mike Barnicle were talking about Clinton losing donors and perhaps even having to pull out before Feb. 5 to avoid a humiliating defeat in New York.

Villaraigosa dismissed such talk, correctly as it turned out, but admitted he saw the race tightening on the heels of Obama's impressive Iowa win, even in California. He then went from New Hampshire to Nevada to stump for Clinton, where she owed her caucus victory to winning the Latino vote 2-1. And in the past week Villaraigosa, Dellums and Newsom went stumping for Clinton all over California, kind of like in a buddy movie, "Los Tres Amigos on the Road," backing a candidate many of their progressive constituents disdain.

Newsom, who'd be a progressive anywhere else in the country given his support of gay marriage and his efforts to bring universal healthcare to San Francisco, but who's merely a moderate in this ultraliberal city, insists it's Clinton, not Obama, who's the best candidate for liberals. When I spoke to him at the Orpheum in San Francisco on Friday, he zeroed in on healthcare and Obama's refusal to mandate that everyone somehow acquire health insurance. "'Universal' healthcare is crucial, and that's what makes it universal -- that's just fundamental," Newsom said. That very day Obama's controversial "Harry and Louise"-like anti-Clinton mailer had become public, and Newsom was seething. "That is not right. That's not right. It completely contradicts the message he's sending."

The Clinton campaign seems personal with Newsom. Blamed by some Democrats for costing John Kerry the election with his 2004 gay marriage gambit, Newsom, who has a streak of self-pity, has told me in the past that he believes he killed his chances for higher office with the move, and predicted he'd never be a sought-after endorsement in the 2008 presidential primary race. He's even told reporters that one of the three leading Democrats has refused to be photographed with him, though he wouldn't say who, but he took a hard shot at Obama just after he endorsed Clinton, for suggesting that civil unions are as good as marriage, noting that "Barack Obama and others are not running to get rid of their marriage licenses to become civil unions." By process of elimination, I suggested the camera-shy Democrat had to be Obama, but Newsom refused to comment. Still, he seems to appreciate Clinton's warm embrace, especially after a year marred by San Francisco's 10-year-high homicide rate as well as a personal scandal involving a messy affair with an aide's wife and the admission of an alcohol problem.

If Newsom is grateful for Clinton's public embrace, the gratitude may go in the other direction when it comes to a San Francisco Obama supporter, District Attorney Kamala Harris; she was one of the earliest elected officials to back his presidential bid. With polls showing Obama closing the gap with Clinton, and a slew of new elected officials endorsing him, Harris sounded tired but happy when we talked last Thursday. "I think it's possible to close the gap; it's narrowing. We've got an unbelievable field operation: 5,000 precinct captains, volunteers, making 10,000 calls a night." But Harris admitted Obama was "still the underdog," and she immediately began talking about the campaign's long-term strategy. "This will be a long struggle, long beyond Feb. 5, and he's the one who can sustain the momentum," she said.

Off the record, some California Obama supporters will confess they wish the campaign had devoted more resources to the state. Obama himself hasn't set foot in Northern California since Jan. 17, when he did an odd event at San Francisco's Women's Building, a supposedly intimate "round table" with four local women ringed by about 100 reporters, and then a fundraiser at the Fairmont that night. He did several events in Los Angeles before and after the CNN debate last week.

Asked if she thought the campaign had invested enough in California, and particularly in the Latino community, Harris paused. "There are never enough resources in a political campaign," she said. "The main resource is the candidate himself, and there's only one of him. Then there's Michelle. We've seen a lot of both of them, but there are a lot of states on Tuesday."

Others say it's faulty logic to second-guess the campaign's decisions in California. Yes, Obama invested hugely in the first four states, and second-guessers may wish some of those resources had gone into the delegate-rich state of California. But without his game-changing victories in Iowa and South Carolina and close second in New Hampshire, California wouldn't have been competitive enough for wistful "if onlys" about more time and resources here.

"Hindsight is 20-20," says Los Angeles School Board member Yolie Flores-Aguilar, an Obama supporter. "It's certainly been a challenge for us," she admits, to cut into Clinton's edge with Latino voters. Although Obama came out to L.A.'s famous Garfield High School soon after he announced his candidacy, and began courting California Latino leaders then, "Hillary Clinton has been known for so many years." Others say the campaign didn't help itself by opening an East L.A. office and hiring a liaison to Spanish-language media only in recent weeks.

Late or not, the recent outreach to Latinos is working at least to line up more elected officials. Obama has picked up endorsements from several Latino leaders in the past few weeks, including U.S. Reps. Linda Sanchez and Xavier Becerra as well as labor leader Durazo. And his campaign made a decision to highlight his support of driver's licenses for undocumented workers, even though at least one Obama staffer told me there was some concern that the decision could come back to haunt him in the general election. When I interviewed Obama supporters like state Sen. Gil Cedillo and education activist (and César Chávez granddaughter) Julie Chávez Rodríguez, Obama's driver's license stance was the first thing they cited as an example of why he's better for Latinos than Clinton.

But Clinton advisor Maria Echeveste insists Clinton will hold her lead among Latinos because they know she will keep her word. "People have pushed [Obama's] stand on driver's licenses. La Opinion endorsed him because of that and because he said he'd complete immigration reform in his first year," Echeveste notes. "I was appalled the paper would take that and believe it -- Hillary Clinton won't promise that, because she knows how hard the job is."

Asked about the possibility of a generation gap among Latinos, Echeveste admits, "I do worry about that," but she notes that unlike early states such as Iowa and Nevada, California doesn't have same-day registration, which may depress the surging youth turnout. Echeveste points to the Clinton campaign's multifront advertising in Spanish and English to show "we respect the Latino electorate in all its diversity. The campaign that really understands the diversity of Latinos is going to win here," she predicts.

Whoever wins Tuesday, it's almost certain that the Obama campaign has succeeded in stopping Clinton from a key goal: running up her delegate count in California. On a conference call late Monday, Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson predicted she would have an edge in delegates after Tuesday's 22 contests, but also said, "The results are frankly likely to be close and inconclusive." He told reporters he expects the campaign to continue "well past tomorrow's voting, certainly through March 4, and maybe beyond."

Already Obama has done what might have seemed impossible: closed a 30-point Clinton lead and pulled even among white voters. He's expected to take the African-American vote heavily. People can parse the meaning of the various Clinton campaign statements that were given a racial taint in the last month as much as they like; it's clear that many African-Americans were insulted by what they see as the campaign's use of race to minimize Obama's achievements. "It was disgusting," says one African-American elected official in California for whom the Clintons used to be "gods." And while the Sunday event with Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Caroline Kennedy was a positive, feel-good morale-builder for the multiracial Obama team, it was impossible not to notice the tinge of bitterness from some in the audience and from Winfrey, who mimicked in a nasal, white-sounding voice the women who'd called her a traitor.

"The Clintons win by dividing," said Dr. Jessie Sherrod, a staunch Obama supporter. She pointed to the former first couple's statements about South Carolina, as well as Clinton's remarking in last week's debate that illegal immigrants may depress wages for some groups, including African-Americans. "She tried to scapegoat Latinos and pit them against African-Americans," Sherrod noted angrily.

Still, despite the appearance of Oprah and Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver's surprise endorsement, Clinton is expected to hold on to her edge among California's single biggest demographic: women. Her Friday fundraiser wasn't billed as a special event for women, but it was at least two-thirds female. And despite the multiracial tableau of elected officials, the person who got the most speaking time, besides Clinton, was actor Mary Steenburgen, who made a kind of feminist girlfriend appeal for her longtime pal. "Her belly laugh is more raucous and dirty than mine," Steenburgen told the crowd, praising Clinton as tough as well: "It's a good thing for us she's been called every name in the books and she's still standing."

The difference in the tenor of the two campaigns' events quite closely matches the difference in the two candidates' appeal. At Friday's fundraisers, guests got fliers with "Hillary" written in bright blue, in her handwriting; it felt very sorority sister to me. The heavily female crowd was able to cite her positions on issues like healthcare and education chapter and verse. Clinton's own speech, alone in a spotlight after Los Tres Amigos and her other supporters had left the stage, was more personal and engaging than she often is before large crowds, but it was also a wonkfest of details about her health, education and economic plans, and the crowd loved it. By contrast, the UCLA event for Obama featured a crowd wearing Obama fleece and Obama tees. His face was everywhere, from Day-Glo Warhol-style posters to every imaginable piece of clothing. It's not just cultlike worship (although there's a little of that); his supporters believe Obama's face has meaning on its own, imagining him as the face of America, in place of George Bush's smirking mug.

"He's the face of California," says Kamala Harris, who shares Obama's biracial background (she's of Indian and African-American descent). "He's lived abroad, he's struggled, he has an immigrant background, he even went to Occidental College" in Los Angeles, though he graduated from Ivy League Columbia in New York. "He's so closely aligned with who we are as a state," she said. "It's not about strategy, it's about a movement, and that's undeniable."

The polls close at 8 Tuesday night, but many analysts are predicting we won't have California's final results until Wednesday morning because of problems with the way some of the counties cast and count their votes. The country will be watching, but one thing is already clear: The first California primary to matter in many, many years will be crucial to the final outcome, but the race will continue on Feb. 6 and perhaps for many months thereafter. Political junkies who every four years speculate wildly about the possibility of a fight settled only at the party's nominating convention might even have their dreams come true, says Wolfson. "This could be a year where we see that." The presidential parade finally passes through California, but despite the early hopes of the Clinton campaign, it's unlikely to end here for Democrats.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama California Democratic Party Hillary Rodham Clinton