California exerts tremendous influence on the nation's economy, social policies and political discourse. And yet our presidential primary votes — coming on June 7 — rarely matter a whit. Every four years the races settle by early spring and the nominees are all but crowned.
But for Republicans, 2016 may finally be the year that California matters.
Several factors make this race unlike all that came before, including the unusually large number of nominees and the rich super PACs that keep their candidacies afloat. Combined with a structural change in how GOP convention delegates are apportioned, we're looking at an elongated Republican contest certain to frustrate the candidates, raise the ante for financial sponsors and stretch the race into June.
Let's turn first to the number of Republican candidates. There are, believe it or not, 12 still in the hunt, bickering daily for attention. At roughly this stage of the race eight years ago (the last without an incumbent), only six were still standing and three of them quit in early January 2008. Only John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee finished the race, which was settled in March. This time around, even if half of the GOP candidates drop out this month, six will remain.
Second, new sources of campaign cash. When the U.S. Supreme Court approved the concept of super PACs in 2010, that landmark decision opened the door to virtually unlimited political spending by groups loyal to — but officially removed from — candidates. Super PACs raised about $600 million for the entire 2012 presidential campaign. As of December 2015, they'd already raised $316 million, with the heaviest spending in the general election yet to come.
Nearly all the hopefuls each have support from one or more super PAC. The super PAC backing Jeb Bush has raised $103 million. Ted Cruz has the backing of super PACs that have raised a combined $30 million. Other candidates have the sponsorship of super PACs with lower balances, but enough to keep them in play. As long as candidates have financial support, there is little reason to drop out.
Third, the Republican National Committee made some important changes to how delegates are divvied up for the nominating convention. All states holding primaries March 1 to 15 — which includes Super Tuesday — must award delegates proportionally to candidates who clear a certain threshold (between 5% and 20% of the vote). Before that change, states had a winner-take-all option; now they don't.
Why is this change so important? Because nearly half the national delegates will be selected during this two-week window. Proportional representation suggests split outcomes in most, if not all, of these key Republican primaries.
We can expect largely self-funded Donald Trump to do well, but not well enough if his rivals pick up sizable support in their home or neighboring states. Chances are good no one will collect 1,237 delegates necessary to secure the nomination before the end of May.
All of which sets the stage for a final battle on June 7. California's 172 delegates — 14% of the total needed to win the nomination and the most of any state — will be awarded winner-take-all. Four other states will elect 131 (mostly) winner-take-all delegates that day. That makes California the state with the biggest haul at potentially the most important moment in the race.
If enough candidates (and their super PACs) remain in the race to the end, though, even the California primary may not be decisive. Should that be the case, the nation will witness the first open presidential convention in 64 years.
Regardless, the 2016 Republican primary might give the nation's most populous state its rightful role in choosing who might be president. Early voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa get all the fanfare, but their populations are anything but representative of the nation's diversity. Republican voters in California — a true cross section of the party's electorate — will deliver a long overdue reality check of the GOP's true values.
Larry N. Gerston is a professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University and author of "Reviving Citizen Engagement: Policies to Renew National Community."