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Opinion: Presidential campaigns are about to get Californian

David Shribman
All of the issues being debated will be Californian as soon as the 2020 presidential campaign turns west, Shribman writes.

Los Angeles — Once the 2020 presidential campaign leaves the early political tests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the political themes, issues and values being debated will all be Californian.

Californians will be able to engage in early voting for their own March 3 primary on the morning of Feb. 3, hours before Iowans trudge to precinct caucuses to begin the process of selecting delegates for the Democrats’ nominating convention in Milwaukee next summer.

For the first time in modern history, one state’s preoccupations are the major engines of a vital presidential election. That much was on broad display in June, when all the major candidates except former Vice President Joe Biden strutted their stuff at the California Democratic Convention and a conclave in San Francisco.

"California issues and California sensibilities are at the heart of this election," said Mindy Romero, the Sacramento-based director of the USC California Engagement Project. "California may be different from the rest of the nation, but our issues are the crux of the national debate. And we have a president who has fanned the idea that California values are counter to the values of the rest of the nation."

This election is a test of that notion.

"A candidate with California values has an advantage in the Democratic primaries," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, who until leaving the race in midsummer was, along with Sen. Kamala Harris, a California candidate in an election with a distinct California coloration. "People know nationwide that you have the proper values. It helps."

Like states big and small, California and its electorate are not monolithic. California, after all, spawned both the conservatism of William F. Knowland (senator, 1945-1959) and the liberalism of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and was the birthplace of both Haight-Ashbury flower power and Breibart News alt-right disruption.

But California has voted Democratic the past eight elections and today has a discernible left-leaning profile.

As a result of relentless population growth and the peculiarities of the Electoral College, the state’s electoral power is greater than the critical swing states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire combined — the four likely principal battlegrounds of the 2020 campaign, and where the presidency will be determined.

The state’s future orientation is best seen in its efforts to battle climate change. 

"The environment," said Pat Smith, executive director of EarthShare California, a coalition of top environmental groups in the state, "is one of our fundamental values." So much so that the state government has filed some two dozen environmental-related lawsuits against the Trump Administration and has prevailed in more than half of them.

The Trump tariffs also have emerged as a major issue in this state, a major agricultural exporter.

"Our industry has always wanted open markets, and we want to see the current situation corrected," said Richard Waycott, president of the Almond Board of California, which represents the interests of the state’s 7,300 almond growers, virtually all family farmers, and the 100 processing companies that trade, package and ship the nuts. Altogether the almond industry supplies more than 80 percent of the world’s supply and accounts for about $4.2 billion in trade.

Immigration, too, is an important issue here.

"The economic fabric of California always has been based on the labor of migrants and is especially so now," said Victor Narro, who directs the UCLA Labor Center and is a professor in the Labor and Workplace Studies Program at the university.

While there is enormous overlap between what is central to California voters and what will be the principal issues in the 2020 campaign, an important part of the enhanced influence of the state is its larger role in selecting Trump's opponent.

"If we were back in the pack, back in June again, the power of California to dominate the presidential campaign might not be the case," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley Institute of Government Studies Poll.

This enormous Democratic candidate field, moreover, is another congruence with California. "That is reflected in the kinds of candidates — a group that is very diverse and in that respect it’s what California is really about,’’ said Ann Crigler, Director of USC’s Jesse M Unruh Institute of Politics.

That is perhaps why an insight now a half-century old has fresh relevance. "California," Joan Didion once wrote, "is a place in which a boom mentality and sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work out here, because here, beneath that immense, bleached sky, is where we run out of continent."

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.