Fourteen Democratic presidential contenders blew into San Francisco last weekend to woo the delegates to the state Democratic Party convention and whisper sweet nothings to California voters.
They promised to give us the time and attention we deserve, now that we’ve moved our primary up into early March. And then they were gone — headed back to Iowa and New Hampshire, leaving only a small coterie of campaign staff and some YouTube videos to remember them by. They’ll be back for an occasional fundraising overnighter or weekend fling of grassroots campaigning. But if Californians thought we had a special bond with President Trump’s most likely opponents, the cold, hard truth will be apparent soon enough.
They’re just not that into us.
When California moved its presidential primary from the end of the nomination process in June up to March 3, Golden State voters expected to finally have a voice in the selection of a nominee. But the state did the same thing in 1996, 2000 and 2004 and found it was still too late to do anything but ratify the choices of the states that preceded us. In 2008, California moved its primary to early February; even then all we did was seal John McCain’s Republican nomination and slightly prolong Hillary Clinton’s challenge to Barack Obama.
At a stage in the race when a candidate needs decisive wins to create momentum, California’s ambiguous results will be of only marginal help.
At that point, our leaders gave up and shifted the primary back to June. It seemed that no matter how early we moved, other states would steal our thunder by further front-loading the calendar.
And now it’s all happening again. When the state Legislature decided to move the 2020 primary back up to March, it was under the same assumptions as those past efforts. Iowans would caucus, New Hampshire would have its primary, and Nevada and South Carolina voters would go to the polls, thinning the field for us. Then we would get our turn. The combination of California’s size, cultural influence and early voting status would finally make us the nation’s king- or queen-maker.
But Texas made the same decision. So did Massachusetts and Virginia and Colorado and several others. No fewer than 14 states have now set Democratic primaries for March 3, guaranteeing that the candidates will be spread across four time zones in the days before our shared Super Tuesday.
The primary in South Carolina — a must-win state for Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and others — is just three days before ours, shrinking the window for campaigning here even more. All told, a whopping 25 other states will vote within a week of California’s primary. Most of our exposure to the candidates is destined to arrive via social media or on news reports from states where it is much less expensive to campaign.
Also, given California’s hefty population, Democratic contenders could walk away with a less-than-useful prize. Unlike Republicans, who award all of their delegates to the primary victor, Democrats distribute theirs on a proportional basis. Candidates need to win a minimum of just 15% of the statewide vote or in a congressional district to qualify.
That was supposed to make it worthwhile for all candidates to come here, even if one had a commanding lead in the polls. But with an overcrowded Democratic field, we could wind up with as many as four or five candidates getting some share of the state’s delegates.
This split decision — caught up in the shuffle of 13 other states voting the same day — will make it difficult for any one of them to claim a standout victory here. At a stage in the race when a candidate needs decisive wins to create momentum, California’s ambiguous results will be of only marginal help.
Our state’s rules for counting absentee ballots complicate the outcome even further. Because absentee ballots can be mailed on election day, results in a close race might not be finalized for a week or more. In that time frame, 11 more states — including major players such as Michigan and Ohio — will vote. Late results from our state are unlikely to even be noticed elsewhere once the campaign has moved on to other parts of the country.
So, sure, Californians are about to get jilted by smooth-talking politicians again. Fortunately we’ve got beaches, mountains and the nation’s best wine — not to mention legal recreational marijuana — with which to console ourselves while other states are once again picking the next president for us.
Dan Schnur worked on four Republican presidential campaigns and three GOP campaigns for governor of California. He is now a registered “no party preference” voter.