California: Attention Must Be Paid

Californians don’t get much attention from the national press corps.

I’m not talking about celebrities. I’m talking about pavement people – the kind who get up and face traffic jams at 5 o’clock in the morning.

Normally, these folks don’t show up on television news unless they’re crawling out from rubble. There are plenty of disasters here. Californians are connoisseurs of catastrophe.

But things are different for a few days. The state used to hold presidential primaries later in the year, after the nomination contests were basically over. This year, California is voting early enough to matter, and it has more delegates than any other state.

Media people and campaign staffers have come in from New York or Washington. For most of them, California is alien territory. Their mental map consists mainly of Arnold Schwarzenegger and a few fundraising venues. The rest is featureless ground bearing the legend, “Here there be juice bars.”

Outsiders may think that the state is young and ethnically diverse, so it will go for Obama, right? Maybe, maybe not. The Californians who show up at the polls tend to be older and less diverse than the population as a whole.

In California’s political rainbow, dominant colors are gray and white. Senator Clinton has received some unkind coverage because of her wrinkles. But there’s gold in those facial lines. The California electorate can relate to the aging process.

On the Republican side, Governor Schwarzenegger has endorsed John McCain. A number of out-of-state commentators have suggested that this endorsement will prove crucial on Super Tuesday. They have gotten things backwards. John McCain is not going to win because Schwarzenegger endorsed him. Schwarzenegger endorsed him because he is going to win.

State Republicans lean rightward, but as in Florida, a fair number are veterans, active-duty military, or other national-security conservatives. Thanks in part to their support, McCain already had a double-digit lead in the state days before his Florida victory. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, governors who would lead must also, in considerable degree, follow.

This state has 38 million people – more than all of Canada. It’s a complicated place that defies stereotypes. California is famous for moviemaking, but is home to 76,000 farms. It has a vocal gay population, but its voters banned gay marriage. It has a reputation for secularism and hedonism but has 17,000 religious congregations.

But California voters do have something in common. They want some respect. They want the national political elites to see them as citizens, and not extras in a freak show. As Mrs. Willie Loman would say: Attention, attention must be paid to such a state.

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