Californians Adjust to a New Election Cycle

The dynamics of the 2008 elections are fascinating, and California is no exception. NPR's Scott Simon talks with Democratic operative Darry Sragow and Republican operative Dan Schnur about California politics.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

To U.S. politics now. Of course, California is the largest state in the nation and one of the most politically influential states of all. And this year, with the accelerated schedule of primaries, California's impact could be even greater earlier.

We're joined now in our Culver City studios by Republican strategist Dan Schnur. His work includes four presidential, three gubernatorial campaigns. You haven't signed up with anyone yet, though, have you?

DAN SCHNUR: I am undecided and watching from the cheap seats.

SIMON: Okay. Another undecided - or at least uncommitted - political consultant is Darry Sragow, a longtime strategist for Democrats including three gubernatorial and two Senate elections. He joins us from his office in downtown Los Angeles. Darry Sragow, thank you very much for being with us.

DARRY SRAGOW: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And if I could ask you each in turn - Dan, if you could go first - this accelerated primary schedule with the California primary among those that have moved to February 5th, is - does California get what it wants out of this to be more influential in determining a nominee?

SCHNUR: Well, in all likelihood, California will not get what we wanted out of this if only because when we first moved our primary to February 5th, there was really no way of anticipating that another 20 or so states would do precisely the same thing. So on one hand, we've seen...

SIMON: To prevent California from being too influential.

SCHNUR: Precisely.

SIMON: Yeah.

SCHNUR: That will stop us. But while we've seen a lot more of the candidates, at least in public, over the 2007 calendar year, from this point forward, I suspect given the tremendous challenge of campaigning in almost two dozen states simultaneously, we're going to be back to the tarmac, drop-bys at the airports that we've seen in years past.

SIMON: Darry?

SRAGOW: Oh, I agree with Dan totally. I think people in California are really tired of not having a significant role in picking the president of the United States. As you mentioned, we're a huge state; there's almost 40 million of us; L.A. County alone is bigger than all but seven states. And it is incredibly frustrating for Californians to be treated like an ATM machine for these candidates, so we wanted to move it up with the hopes that we might matter politically. But this game of leapfrog means that that's not particularly likely to happen.

SIMON: Let's explain, too, in the primaries. As I understand it, the Republican primary is open only to registered Republican voters. The Democratic primary is opened to anybody who wants to cast a vote. Do I have that right? You...

SRAGOW: Yes.

SCHNUR: You have that right. And unfortunately, it's a very foolish decision on the part of my Republican Party. You know, one of the first things we learn in politics is one of the hardest things to do is to get a voter to do something once; once they've done it once, getting to do it a second and third time becomes much easier. And the fact that we're allowing independent-inclined state voters in California, who make up almost one quarter of our electorate, to vote in the Democratic primary and potentially get in the habit of voting for a Democratic candidate come November. I think it's a very counterproductive decision on our part.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. Do I need to ask what issues are especially important to Californians, or can I just cut to the chase and ask about immigration?

SRAGOW: Well, it's not the only issue that's uniquely important in California; the environment is very important as well, and I wouldn't underestimate that.

SCHNUR: I think Darry is right. And again, if you look at, particularly, the ground that Governor Schwarzenegger has staked out in the global warming debate is instructive

SRAGOW: Yes.

SCHNUR: Because while he's a free spirit in a lot of ways, what he's doing here is very reflective of the way California voters think. It's an issue on which they put a great deal of prominence, but no question to your point, immigration, at least according to public opinion polling, ranks head and above the field.

SIMON: And how does that issue differ in both parties? Is it a different issue among the Republicans than it is among the Democrats?

SRAGOW: Oh, I think very definitely.

SIMON: Darry, go ahead please.

SRAGOW: Sure. The - well, the Republicans have gotten themselves into absolutely horrendous trouble in California. Its view is very unwelcoming to what I call the New Californians, consistently positions itself as anti- immigrant, and this is a state, we should note, that is minority white, so that just doesn't work here. And a lot of Latino voters who could be voting Republican for a variety of reasons just feel unwelcome in that party.

SIMON: Dan Schnur...

SCHNUR: I - no, but he...

SIMON: ...it was not so long ago that Hispanic voters were considered to be quite approachable by the Republicans.

SCHNUR: Well, that's right. Although, I would say this, I think, the political equation is a little bit more complicated than Darry articulates. And my guess is that Senator Clinton and Governor Spitzer back in New York State would agree with me that while on one hand, the party wants to be seen as accommodating the immigrants, particularly legal immigrants, what we saw was Spitzer and Clinton and other Democratic presidential candidates is the inherent political danger of veering too far in that direction.

It's true for the Democrats as well because you had an awful lot of swing voters of a lot of different races and ethnicities who are very, very wary of a party or a candidate who seems to be too accommodating to people who come to this country illegally. So it's a balance, and it really is a challenge and a potential difficulty for both parties out here.

SRAGOW: There's another piece of the upcoming primary that's very important. The number of votes cast in California by mail is increasing dramatically - M-A-I-L - meaning that, historically, in this country, there has been one election day, and in California we now have 30 election days because you can cast a ballot in the mail as early as 30 days out. And so you have voters with information that is very different than the information that voters have on what has traditionally been the election day.

SIMON: So people in California can actually vote before the results of the Iowa caucuses - in New Hampshire. (Unintelligible).

SRAGOW: No, right afterwards.

SCHNUR: Right after Iowa, before New Hampshire.

SIMON: Yeah.

SCHNUR: It's - 30 days before February 5th is three days before the New Hampshire primary, so, you know, we will be voting in between Iowa and New Hampshire whether they like it or not.

SRAGOW: And, see, that benefits - it can be argued again that that's another benefit that campaigns that already have a lot of money in the bank...

SIMON: Sure, because they can (unintelligible)...

SRAGOW: ...will have. Sure, they can be - they can be getting ready to do this right now.

SIMON: This must drive you, consultants, nuts...

SRAGOW: Totally.

SIMON: ...because you can't even plan towards a date certain.

SCHNUR: Well, and even if you could, that date certain comes three days after New Year's. Can you imagine the slash-and-burn television commercial running right during "It's A Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You, guys, do have to think of everything, don't you, come to think of it?

SRAGOW: Yeah. Well, there's new things to think about thanks to the new schedule.

SIMON: Well, gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us.

SCHNUR: Thank you very much.

SRAGOW: Sure. Thank you.

SIMON: Darry Sragow, Democratic political consultant, joining us from Los Angeles; and Dan Schnur, Republican political consultant at our studios of NPR West in Culver City.

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