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Column: Primary election no-shows in California are a warning to Biden

Josiah Burnley, 20, of Los Angeles, votes for the first time in the presidential primary election in Norwalk on March 4.
Josiah Burnley, 20, of Los Angeles, votes for the first time in the presidential primary election at the Los Angeles County Registrar Recorder in Norwalk on March 4.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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They’ve almost finished counting votes from the California primary and the news is not good for President Biden.

Sure, he “won.” He was virtually unopposed and easily captured California’s largest-in-the-nation bloc of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. His renomination to a second term has never been in doubt — if he ran.

But the unsettling news for Biden is that hundreds of thousands of Democratic and independent voters who cast ballots in the March 5 primary skipped over the presidential contest, ignoring it.

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Look, presidential voting comes at the very top of the ballot. How much effort is needed to mark the name of a sitting president who’s known by everyone? It doesn’t require boning up, unlike a complex ballot proposition.

But a lot more people voted on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Proposition 1 — the mental health bond measure — at the tail end of the state ballot.

“Usually, voting falls off after the top of the ticket rather than people skipping the top,” notes Mark Baldassare, pollster for the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC.

The fact that many voters snubbed the presidential contest raises two questions, Baldassare says. Will they repeat that in November? Also, will they support a third party or independent candidate, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.?

That wouldn’t hurt Biden in California. He’s assured of California’s 54 electoral votes, the largest cache of any state. The modern GOP is incapable of winning a statewide election in California.

Joe Biden’s forceful State of the Union speech should quell doubts about his fitness to run for reelection. No one is more happy than California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

March 11, 2024

But California voters are not entirely unrepresentative of the nation. Their lack of enthusiasm for Biden is a reflection of Democratic attitudes nationally, polls repeatedly have shown.

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And it could cost Biden in a half dozen battleground states where even a small loss of Democratic or independent voter support could tip the race to Republican Donald Trump. It’s not that these voters would side with Trump over Biden. But they might sit out the race completely or back a third-party type. That’s what scares the Biden camp.

On the right, however, Trump’s support base is solid.

And that, frankly, amazes me. About 2 million California Republicans voted for a lying, uncivil, fraudulent con man.

Besides being indicted on 91 felony counts and having inspired a deadly insurrection at the nation’s Capitol, the former president recently warned of a “bloodbath” if he loses the election and is now shamelessly hocking custom Bibles for profit. “Make America pray again” is his pitch.

OK, the bloodbath warning referred to the economic impact of offshore auto manufacturing and his plan to increase tariffs on foreign-made cars. But is “bloodbath” the kind of language we want America’s president to be using when discussing tariff policy or conducting international diplomacy?

When Trumpers are asked why they can vote for such a low-character jerk, they invariably answer that the alternative — ”Crooked Joe” — is worse.

Except that doesn’t explain their votes in the California primary. Biden wasn’t on the GOP ballot. Trump’s only active opponent was Nikki Haley, a respectable Republican former governor and United Nations ambassador.

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“People want to vote for the person who’s going to be the winner,” Republican consultant Matt Rexroad told me. “They think Trump is going to be the winner and they want to be aboard the train.”

Trump carried every California county, winning roughly 80% of the GOP vote. Haley got about 18%.

On the Democratic ballot, Biden collected roughly 89% — around 3.2 million votes.

To put that in perspective, there were 10.3 million Democratic registered voters. Additionally, there were 4.8 million independent voters — No Party Preference — who could have voted in the Democratic presidential primary merely by requesting a ballot.

We make voting super easy in California. Every registered voter is mailed a ballot with a postage-paid return envelope. And you’ve got a month before election day to vote.

Despite that, the voter turnout was very low. It looks like roughly 34% of registered voters cast ballots. In 2020, the presidential primary turnout was 47%.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in California by nearly 2 to 1.

But in this primary, a larger percentage of registered Republicans actually voted than did Democrats or independents.

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Paul Mitchell, who runs Political Data Inc., preliminarily estimates the Republican turnout at 43%, compared with 37% for Democrats and only 23% for independents.

“A significant number of Democrats just skipped the presidential race,” says political analyst Tony Quinn, a former Republican redistricting staffer who crunched voter numbers. “Figures don’t lie.”

The first lady swung through Southern California, championing the Biden administration’s work for women and LGBTQ people. Protesters over the Mideast war followed.

March 25, 2024

Quinn calculates that the overall turnout was roughly 7.7 million voters. But of those, roughly 1.7 million blew off the presidential contests — 22% of the voters. By comparison, fewer than 500,000 voters skipped Proposition 1 and the U.S. Senate race.

It’s impossible right now to break down the total presidential skips in each party primary. But a PPIC pre-primary survey asked likely voters how enthusiastic they were about voting for president this year. Independents were overwhelmingly unenthusiastic. Democrats were about evenly split between enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts. But most Republicans were very enthusiastic.

“Democrats aren’t fired up to vote,” Rexroad says. “But Republicans are incredibly upset over the way the White House is running.

“And when I’m at the gym, people talk about how Biden is going to stumble down the stairs.”

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Ah yes, the age issue. Biden is 81 but mentally acute. Trump is 77 and acts like a spoiled 7-year-old brat.

“Voters are despondent,” says former Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world and they’re desperate for strong, competent leadership.”

California’s primary showed that Biden still has lots of convincing to do.

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