With California’s June primary looking more consequential every day, a new PPIC 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, 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.

“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 Harmeet 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 out 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. Party vice chair 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.”

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When we last visited the Central Valley farm town of Lindsay, Amy Huerta and her brother, Luis, were in the middle of a pretty intense dinnertime conversation about voting.

“I mean, these are things that matter,” says Luis, who can’t vote because he’s undocumented. Amy is 18, and she could be the first in her family to vote, so he’s putting a lot of pressure on her.

“I don’t always take his side,” laughs Amy. “I don’t always do what he tells me to do, because we both have different minds.”

But other potential young voters in Lindsay come from families where politics are not a main course during family dinner.

‘It Doesn’t Matter If I Vote or Not’

Across town from the Huerta household, 22-year-old Cassandra Baca’s daughter, Amoriee, just woke up from a nap.

Baca says she hasn’t really thought at all about voting. She’s got enough on her plate as a single mom with a baby. She works as a kitchen assistant in a facility for senior citizens.

“It doesn’t matter if I vote or not. I don’t think it would count. It really doesn’t have anything to do with me,” she says, as she tries to distract the baby by jangling her car keys.

Cassandra’s dad migrated from Mexico to work in the fields. After she got her GED, she picked fruit in the citrus orchards, too, climbing on top of the tall ladders and braving the thorny branches to pick lemons.

As for working in the fields?

“It was hard, but it was a lesson,” she says.

Was the lesson that she didn’t want to do it?

Cassandra Baca, 22, and her baby daughter, Amoriee. Baca says she's too busy as a working single mom to think about voting.
Cassandra Baca, 22, and her baby daughter, Amoriee. Baca says she’s too busy as a working single mom to think about voting. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

“Yeah, to do something better than working in the fields. It was a good experience to know you can work hard for your money, and that’s not an easy job,” she says. “A lot of Americans just sit around on their desk while immigrants are actually out here, from the dawn to when the sun goes down, working in the fields.”

In fact, the only thing that’s caught her attention this election season has been Donald Trump’s message about immigrants.

“Some of the stuff he’s been saying about Mexicans,” says Baca. “If it wasn’t for the immigrants, we wouldn’t have any fruit or vegetables. So I think it’s pretty cruel for him to be out there doing that.”

Maybe, just maybe, she says, Trump might be enough to drive her to the polls.

But so far, no one has ever encouraged her to register to vote or to cast a ballot.

“I think that makes perfect sense,” says Lindsay’s first Latina mayor, Ramona Villarreal-Padilla. “If you’ve never heard why it’s important to vote, if you’ve never seen Latinos moving forward and being in office, if you’ve never seen or been exposed to that, how would one make that first move?”

Latinos’ Hard-Won Political Power

Latinos make up more than 85 percent of Lindsay’s population. Padilla is in her 50s, and she says when she was growing up here, the town was mostly white, and controlled by white farmers.

She says it’s taken a long time for Latinos to achieve a balance of power in local government. Now three out of the five members on the City Council are Latino.

But she worries that the activism that helped sweep Latinos like her into power in Lindsay could be diminished by a generation of would-be voters who are less politically engaged.

“If everybody thought voting wasn’t important, we wouldn’t be moving forward in the Latino movement, the Latino caucus, or anywhere you see that Latinos make a difference, because we are the majority,” says Padilla.

Padilla says her father marched with Cesar Chavez, and farmworkers were always stopping by their house for advice.

“Even though my dad wasn’t on city council or anything, he was an activist for the people’s voice,” explains Padilla. “I think that’s the ethic and the legacy that I’m taking over from my father, still being a voice for here in the town where I was raised.”

Padilla says her dad, who had only a second-grade education, taught his 14 children the importance of voting.

“I didn’t think it really mattered. But my dad, if he left anything for any of us to know, he says, ‘If you don’t vote, or don’t register to vote, then the government will take your voice away.’”

Lindsay, California is a town of about 12,000 in the heart of the state's citrus farming belt in Tulare County.
Lindsay, California is a town of about 12,000 in the heart of the state’s citrus farming belt in Tulare County. (Kerry Klein/KQED)

Like a lot of mayors from small towns and mid-size cities, Padilla is hardly a fat-cat politician. As mayor, she receives only a $75 stipend each month. Her day job is as a mental health clinician in the schools. She’s also  working toward a Ph.D. in psychology.

Padilla takes me on a tour of the McDermont Field House, a former citrus packinghouse that the city turned into 172,000-square-foot indoor sports complex. It’s got indoor soccer fields, the largest laser tag space in the world and an indoor wave rider where landlocked farm kids can hang ten on a man-made swell.

“This was a project for Lindsay to be a fit city,” explains Padilla. “To improve engagement of youth in Lindsay, to have a place where they can come and not get themselves into trouble.”

But trouble came nonetheless. Not from kids, but through alleged financial mismanagement by previous city leaders that has left Lindsay’s current administration trying to figure out to pay for the sports complex.

Padilla says she’s trying to bring more transparency to the city and to get residents engaged. And that means all residents, including undocumented farmworkers who can’t vote. And their children, who can, but maybe don’t.

Like Amy Huerta. The mayor has a message for her:

“Amy, I get the sense that you’re thinking that it might not make a difference whether you would vote,” Padilla says.

“I’d like to say to you that it does make a difference because I remember from Lindsay City Council, people won by one vote. That (one vote) could be you.”

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.

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