California Needs to Find a Way to Get Back Into the Presidential Game

Feel ignored? Cut out of the action? Taken for granted by one candidate? Considered worthless by another? You're not imagining.

This is the most populous state in the nation -- with 20% of the electoral votes needed to capture the White House -- but we're out of play in the presidential election.

It's as if we'd already voted. We have, actually, in the thinking of presidential campaign strategists. The majority of us voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2000 when he beat George W. Bush by 12 points. Polls consistently have shown we're going to vote for the Democratic candidate again.

Sen. John Kerry leads President Bush among likely California voters by a lopsided 58% to 40%, according to a new Times poll. In another fresh survey, by the Public Policy Institute of California, Kerry leads Bush by 51% to 39%.

So forget us, both candidates conclude. Don't waste the time. Campaign in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon -- so-called battleground states. But don't bother touching down in California or spending any money there.

"We're 'flyover' except when it comes time to raise money," says political analyst Tony Quinn. "Then we're 'stop over and pick up the check.' "

Candidates do love to schmooze superrich political donors on L.A.'s Westside, but they don't pay much attention to owners of small businesses out in the San Fernando Valley or working-class voters down in the South Bay.

Pity the candidates, especially Kerry. If he should win on Nov. 2, the new president would not have used the campaign to connect with Californians, as President Bill Clinton did. He'd soon be running for reelection without having built a strong political base here.

Bush still has not attended one state party convention in California.

All this is rooted in small-minded thinking. California is Democratic country, the pros theorize, and beyond the reach of Republicans. That ignores history. Politics here is cyclical and leans center. Traditionally, we vote for candidates more than parties.

Starting with FDR, California voted Democratic for five straight elections. Then, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower, Republicans carried the state for nine out of 10 elections. Now Democrats are on a three-game winning streak.

Demographics are changing as more immigrants arrive, the political sharpies remind us. But who's to say that third-generation Latinos won't be voting like third-generation Italians -- in the middle, depending on the candidate and issues.

OK, regardless: How do we entice presidential candidates to invest time and money in California so we can get into the game? So we don't have to feel like kids on the outside with their noses pressed to the window, watching the candidates fight it out in a few undersized battleground states?

Here's how: Offer all candidates a share of California's electoral vote. For the dark horse, make it worth coming out here and competing. For the front-runner, make it a little scary. Junk the historic winner-take-all rule. Allot the Electoral College votes based on the popular vote.

We could do like two states -- Maine and Nebraska -- and parcel out one electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district. California has 53 -- 33 Democrat, 20 Republican. The final two electoral votes would be awarded to the statewide winner.

In every other state, it's strictly winner-take-all.

But Colorado has on its Nov. 2 ballot a proposal for a purely proportional system. Electoral votes would be allocated based on each candidate's share of the popular vote. For California, that would mean if a candidate won 54% of the people's vote, he'd get 30 electoral votes; win 46%, get 25.

Under that system, Bush last time would have won 22 electoral votes in California instead of zero. But it wouldn't have affected the national outcome because Bush didn't need California. He had Florida wired.

In fact, you'd have to go way back to 1876 to find a presidential election where a proportional system in California would have changed the outcome nationally. Democrat Samuel Tilden would have been elected president instead of Republican Rutherford Hayes.

We can't worry about that.

We need to worry about being shunned.

The new poll by the Public Policy Institute finds that 64% of California adults favor electing a president by direct popular vote instead of by the Electoral College.

"It's frustrating to people that we're being overlooked even though we're a state of 36 million," says PPIC pollster Mark Baldassare. "It flies in the face of logic. It takes the notion of direct democracy to a level that most Californians have trouble understanding."

"The Electoral College is an anachronism," says Democratic consultant Darry Sragow. "It's ludicrous. It shortchanges California and it alienates voters.

"Everybody scratches their heads and asks, 'How do we increase voting participation?' Well, you increase participation by allowing voters to make a difference."

Politicians won't change this on their own. Most California governors look in the mirror and see a president. They'd never give up winner-take-all. Legislators would get hung up trying to dissect the political implications.

It'll take a ballot initiative to get us off the bench.

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.

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