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How Donald Trump got the Republican primaries sewn up before the votes even opened

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump arrives at a Get Out the Vote Rally on March 2 in Richmond, Virginia
Donald Trump's success in the national primary race is partly due to his grasp on the Republican Party's apparatus - Win McNamee/Getty Images

Colton Weeks had supported the Democrats for his entire life before he decided to become a Republican in 2016.

Donald Trump’s first election campaign “resonated” with him, and he started to “see through the bulls--t” of mainstream media reporting, he said.

The 54-year-old tech consultant believes the 2020 election was “stolen”, and on January 6 2021 he attended the pro-Trump protest at the US Capitol in Washington.

After that, his friends in San Francisco stopped inviting him to events. His own mother blocked his phone number.

“It was like coming out again, and coming out of the closet a second time as a conservative, I felt less safe than I did coming out as a gay man,” he said.

Republicans are difficult to find in San Francisco, America’s most liberal city. They make up just 12 per cent of voters, and many keep their politics hidden to avoid the ire of outspoken Democrats.

But as California joins 14 other states in the “Super Tuesday” primary elections this week, they have a major role to play in Mr Trump’s re-election campaign.

His success in the national primary race is partly due to his grasp on the Republican Party’s apparatus, which is so firm that it has led to accusations that the vote is rigged in his favour.

In Michigan and Nevada, the rules were changed last year to make it more likely that Mr Trump would receive the most delegates. The same is true in California, where his supporters have turned the primary into a winner-takes-all contest.

The sheer size of the Golden State’s population means that even though Republicans are vastly outnumbered by Democrats there, they have a greater bearing on the GOP result than any other voters.

On Tuesday, the state’s 169 Republican delegates will be the biggest prize of the night – and all are set to be handed to Mr Trump, in his biggest victory yet.

Since the beginning of the primaries on Jan 15, the former president has lost just one vote, in Washington DC, and sometimes wins states by 20 points or more.

The latest California polling, released by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley on Friday, found the former president is likely to sweep up three-quarters of Republicans.

Nikki Haley, Mr Trump’s only remaining opponent, will walk away with just 15 per cent of the vote, the poll predicts.

Mark DiCamillo, a veteran pollster who conducted the research, describes Mr Trump’s dominance of the race as “overwhelming”.

“He has continued to go up in every successive poll we’ve done this year,” he said. “He was at 66 per cent six weeks ago. He’s now at 75 per cent.”

Mr Trump’s nomination, which looked far from certain just nine months ago, is now effectively guaranteed.

With the result in California on Tuesday, plus expected victories in big states like Texas and Virginia, Mr Trump could declare victory as early as mid-March – months before primary contests are usually settled.

“Republicans in California share a lot of the same concerns and issue priorities as Republicans nationwide, even though they’re a much smaller share of the state’s voters,” Mr DiCamillo said. “They’re very much behind Trump.”

This is clear from speaking to GOP members, who quietly support Mr Trump but are less vocal than “MAGA” Republicans in other states.

“I’m voting for Trump,” said Charlotte, who declined to give her surname because she was concerned about being targeted by liberal activists.

“I’m not voting for Nikki Haley. Are you kidding me? She’s exactly what we don’t want.”

Another supporter, who said she feared she would lose her job at a major tech firm if she gave her opinions in public, agreed.

“I am going to be voting for Trump – I never have before. But if I were to put a ‘Trump 2024’ sign on my window, I guarantee someone would put a rock through it,” she said.

Previously, California’s results were highly localised to reflect its size and diversity, allowing a candidate to win just one district and still walk away with delegates at the Republican National Convention in July.

Now, after a campaign by Trump supporters at the state level, any candidate who receives more than 50 per cent of the statewide vote will receive all of the delegates.

The decision infuriated Mr Trump’s opponents and effectively sank Ms Haley’s campaign before it had even begun.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley at a campaign event in Portland
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley at a campaign event in Portland - Joel Page/Reuters

Mike Madrid, a GOP consultant and former political director of the California Republican party, said “Trump people” had “railroaded” the changes through last September to ensure their candidate would receive the maximum number of delegates.

“This was done with the full imprimatur and blessing of the Trump people. It’s a complete power play to dominate the party,” he said.

“One of the ironies is that the old system was instituted years ago by grassroots organisers to prevent the ‘establishment’ Republicans from controlling who would be the nominee.

“This has had the effect of doing the exact opposite – it prevents Nikki Haley or the other candidates from being competitive. It has allowed for complete dominance of Donald Trump.”

Such is Mr Trump’s sway over Californian politics that a separate election to choose a new senator in November has also become a referendum on his presidential campaign.

Steve Garvey, a GOP contender for the seat, has received much of his support because he is considered the most pro-Trump candidate, while on the other side Adam Schiff won the backing of his party for working on the impeachment of Mr Trump during his last presidency.

“They’re not asking questions about abortion or climate change or gun control or economics,” said Mr Madrid.

“All they care about is who is the most anti-Trump, and if Trump doesn’t like you the most, you get the nomination.”

As Mr Trump’s supporters set about remaking the state party in his image, the former president himself dialled up his attacks on California’s liberal politicians.

In a speech this week, Mr Trump extended to Gavin Newsom, the Democratic state governor, the compliment of a nickname: “New-scum”.

Nancy Pelosi, the veteran San Francisco Democrat, already features heavily in Mr Trump’s speeches as “Crazy Nancy”.

The former president told the state Republican convention last year: “While California was once a symbol of American success, today, under the radical left fascists and Marxists that run your state…it’s becoming a symbol of our nation’s decline.”

Turning to the issue of rampant crime in many Californian cities, he promised: “We will immediately stop all of the pillaging and theft. Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store”.

On the ground, his campaign appears to be working among Republicans and Democrats alike.

California has voted for a Democrat president in every election since 1992, and since Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, the margin of victory has never been less than 20 per cent. In 2020, Joe Biden beat Mr Trump by five million votes.

However, the results of the latest UC Berkeley poll find that in head-to-head matchup with Mr Trump now, Mr Biden is ahead by 18 points – a little over half his margin at the last election.

When third-party candidates are included in the options given to voters, as they will be in November, the president’s estimated lead falls to just 12 points.

Latino vote shifting

Although there is no question that solid-blue California will still support Mr Biden in November, the state’s polling data reveals a collapse in support among some groups that will be required to get him over the line in other more equivocal states.

Many Latinos, who make up 40 per cent of Californian voters, have turned towards Mr Trump in a “rightward shift”, after his concerted effort to appeal to the group nationwide.

When Mr Biden took office, three-quarters of Latino voters felt positively about him. Now, that figure is 43 per cent.

At the same time, young liberal voters in California are reporting they will stay away from the polls in November in protest of Mr Biden’s support for Israel – or vote for the third-party candidate Cornel West, who is fiercely pro-Palestine.

The latest polls show 57 per cent of under-30s in the state have an unfavourable view of Mr Biden, up from 25 per cent on his inauguration day. The expected turnout is down significantly.

Pollsters say the election results in California are easy to predict: Mr Trump will win the primary on Tuesday, but Mr Biden will win the state in November.

But behind those headlines is an ironic phenomenon: that America’s liberal fortress could become the site of Mr Trump’s greatest victories.

A win on Tuesday will make the former president truly unbeatable in the race to the Republican nomination, while in the general election he stands to embarrass Mr Biden with the closest California result in 20 years.

The rump of shy Republicans in San Francisco hope that would enrage the liberals around them.

“They didn’t want him to be president in the first place, but they certainly don’t want him to be president again,” says Mr Weeks. “Which makes me want him to be president even more.”