Trump Leads in California, Setting Stage for Fierce Battle in GOP Primary

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Donald Trump at a recent political rally in Arizona. (Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

With California's June primary looking more consequential every day, a new Public Policy Institute of California poll shows Donald Trump with a commanding lead among the remaining Republicans running for president.

Trump is preferred by 38 percent of likely voters, followed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with 19 percent. The poll was finished just before Florida Sen. Marco Rubio exited the race, and both he and Ohio Gov. John Kasich registered 12 percent in the poll.

Without Rubio in the race and his supporters' second-choice votes added in, Trump remains at 38 percent, while Cruz gains 8 percentage points for a total of 27 percent. Kasich wins 14 percent without Rubio included.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton maintains a 48 to 41 percent lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.


And in the U.S. Senate race, two Democrats lead the pack. Attorney General Kamala Harris is preferred by 26 percent of likely voters, followed by Orange County congresswoman Loretta Sanchez with 17 percent. Republicans Tom Del Becarro and Duf Sundheim are in single digits (9 and 6 percent respectively), with 31 percent of respondents saying they're still undecided.  Republican Ron Unz entered the race after the poll was conducted.

If there was any doubt whether California's primary would count for something, Kasich removed it the night he won the primary in his home state.

"I’m getting ready to rent a covered wagon," Kasich told the crowd in Cleveland last week. "We’re gonna have a big sail and blow us to the Rocky Mountains and over the mountains to California."

Disillusioned Republicans Return to the Party

"It is by far the most fascinating presidential campaign I’ve ever been involved in and seen and witnessed," said San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon, vice chair of the California Republican Party.

Dhillon says the state's suddenly relevant primary has Republicans who left the party in disgust returning like the swallows to San Juan Capistrano.

Harmeet Dhillon, vice chair of the California Republican Party.
Harmeet Dhillon, vice chair of the California Republican Party. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

"They’re coming back into the party and they're seeing that they may be relevant this time," she said.

California's GOP primary is closed -- only registered Republicans can vote. That could help the most conservative candidate in the race, says Tom Hudson, with the group California Republican Assembly.

"Longtime party activists and party volunteers and party donors and a lot of the mainstream of California have lined up behind Ted Cruz," said Hudson. "The Trump people have hats and bumper stickers and a bunch of names on a piece of paper, but that's about it."

Unlike Trump or Kasich, Hudson says, Cruz has an active grassroots operation here lining up delegates for the primary. A few prominent Republicans, like Carly Fiorina, are also supporting him. Hudson and other conservatives worry that Trump would be like Arnold Schwarzenegger, what some conservatives call a RINO, or Republican In Name Only.

Schwarzenegger "was a disaster as governor," Hudson said. He says he thinks Trump, like "The Governator," has "no core beliefs and says whatever is popular."

Conservative GOP activist Jon Fleischman agrees, saying Trump is just playing on voter anger while promising to shake things up.

"It turns out it was a sham, he was an actor who acted mad to get my support," Fleischman said of Schwarzenegger. "And then he went to Sacramento and really became a political insider."

But Republican consultant Mike Madrid thinks critics underestimate Trump at their peril.

"I think he’s probably going to be more competitive than we think he is because we’re seeing this tremendous appetite against establishment candidates on both sides of the aisle," Madrid said.

While Madrid thinks the Trump phenomenon is driving up voter turnout, "only half are pro-Trump, while the other half is turned off."

Republican consultant Hector Barajas says it’s all great for a party that's been losing voters -- and statewide elections in California -- year after year after year.

"It's gonna mean that our volunteer rolls are going to increase," Barajas predicts. "You’re going to have a lot more of that excitement, people wanting to get themselves registered, making sure they're registered. At the same time filling out those volunteer cards. You know increasing those volunteer rolls will be important, especially if we can carry that all the way to November."

'Hand-to-Hand Delegate Combat'

California has the most delegates of any state -- in fact, more than 10 percent of the total number of delegates needed to capture the GOP nomination are available here.

Each of the state’s 53 congressional districts has three delegates, and whichever candidate gets the most votes in each district wins all three. That means there are delegates to be won in every district, whether it’s represented by San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi or conservative Kevin McCarthy in Bakersfield.

GOP vice chair Dhillon says that kind of competition brings to mind World War II.

"One of the candidates’ top spokespersons told me it’s like going to be like the Battle of Stalingrad -- hand-to-hand delegate combat," Dhillon said. "That means in each of the congressional districts there’s a fight."

So you might just see Trump, Cruz or Kasich, even if you live in liberal Oakland, Santa Monica or San Francisco -- anywhere they think they can win delegates. Every Republican I spoke to is hopeful the contentious primary will draw as much as 30 percent more GOP voters. That, in turn, could improve the fortunes of down-ballot candidates for the U.S. Senate, Congress and the state Legislature.

However California's primary turns out, it's unlikely Republicans will leave united. Dhillon is counting on someone else to bring the party together.

"Hillary Clinton is universally loathed and despised in our party," she says. "So whoever the nominee is, and even if it’s Donald Trump, people will be working to defeat Hillary."

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what’s important to the future of California.