Would Donald Trump be president today if California had moved its 2016 presidential primary earlier in the year? Probably, but who knows for sure? By the time the Golden State was casting votes on June 7, Trump had all but locked up the Republican Party nomination and Californians fell into line.
But what if California’s millions of Republicans had been allowed to choose months earlier, when Trump wasn’t the presumptive candidate? Might voters have thrown their support behind another, more mainstream candidate and slowed down Trump’s momentum? It’s a tantalizing thought, and it underscores that the most populous state was once again superfluous in one of the nation’s most important elections.
Moving the presidential primary earlier would make the state matter again — as it did in 2008, when California lawmakers detached the presidential party nominations from the normal June primary for state offices and moved it to February. The result was a record-breaking turnout of 9 million voters and a sense that the state had played a role in a historic election. But it came at a not-insignificant price: The tab for running an extra statewide election that year was estimated at $100 million. In 2011, lawmakers decided that cost was too high and moved future presidential primaries back to June.
This act of frugality during the economic downturn was understandable. The state budget was reeling from huge deficits, and spending $100 million to cut toward the front of the presidential primary line must have seemed extravagant.
A better plan would be to keep the presidential, state and local primaries together during presidential election years and move them all to the third Tuesday in March. Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) has proposed a bill to do just that, starting in 2020. The proposal (SB 568) is endorsed by the state’s top elections official, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who said the move would make California a priority for all presidential candidates. In the last two elections, most candidates didn’t bother holding rallies or hobnobbing with the hoi polloi here, only visiting Los Angeles and the Bay Area to schmooze with wealthy Californians at top-dollar fundraisers.
Lara’s idea is generally a good one and should move forward. But his goal — laid out in his press release, not in the bill itself — may not be the right one. He wants to place California third in the primary voting lineup after Iowa and New Hampshire. To try to ensure that placement, the bill allows the governor to move the primary even earlier as long as he or she gives elections officials a 240-day heads up.
But as we’ve seen time and again, states that hold early primaries don’t stand idly by when their position in the pecking order is threatened. When California held its presidential primary in March 1996, other states moved their primaries even earlier. Do we really want to engage in a primary-date arms race over who gets to be third? Don’t we really just want to move ourselves up so that we don’t get cut out of the decision altogether?
(Ideally, we’d like to see a system in which primaries are rotated so no one state gets to dominate the election every time. Unfortunately, though, it would be up to the political parties and state legislatures around the country to make that happen, and that option is not on the table at the moment.)
As the proposal moves through legislative hearings in the coming weeks, this and other issues will undoubtedly be addressed. For instance, this bill would extend the legislative campaign season by more than two months. Is that too long? Would voters tune out? And would the bigger gap between the primary and the general election put pressure on candidates to raise even more money so they can spend even more time campaigning, making them even more beholden to donors?
Those are reasonable questions. But they shouldn’t stop the proposal from advancing. Moving California’s primaries up gives the state the proportionate influence it deserves in the national contest. Let’s do it and make California’s presidential primaries great again.