Op-Ed: Do Democrats really want an early California presidential primary?


Plucked from California’s political recycling bin: proposals by Democrats in Sacramento to move the Golden State’s presidential primary election from June to the third week in March, and perhaps even earlier, in 2020. It’s not a groundbreaking concept. California held “early” primaries in the four presidential elections from 1996 through 2008. Judged on participation and ability to push forward a victorious candidate, they produced mixed results.

The state’s February 2008 primary, for example, saw 57.7% of registered voters turn out, with Hillary Clinton — not the ultimate winner, Barack Obama — taking the Democratic prize. Last year’s June presidential primary at least matched the final national slates; it drew 10% less of the electorate.

The politicians pushing for the primary date change say the state must right the wrong of its voice being “silenced” because it weighs in so late in picking presidential candidates. One bill includes the option for whoever is governor to move the date even earlier than March, to compensate as other states jockey for position. (In 2008, despite California’s February primary date, six states pushed ahead and the West Coast colossus got buried in a “Super Tuesday” avalanche of 22 other states.)


It’s not as if California lacks for influence in national politics. Right now, the state seems poised and panting to sue the Trump administration — on numerous fronts — with a fervor that suggests Gloria Allred is calling the shots in Sacramento. And after next year’s elections, the California political A-team will include Sen. Kamala Harris and, as governor, either Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa or John Chiang. That lineup seems likely to produce at least two mediagenic candidates to wave California’s Democratic flag in future presidential contests.

It’s not as if California lacks for influence in national politics.

None of that means Golden State Dems will pass up the opportunity to add to their clout with a primary switch. However, it’s not so clear the national party, which also has a say in when primaries get scheduled, should go along.

Any Democratic presidential candidate coming to these parts in the early days of a 2020 campaign theoretically would have to sign on to a made-in-California agenda of higher gasoline taxes, legalized marijuana, earlier prison parole, stricter gun control and something akin to universal healthcare — not to mention the idea of the entire state as a sanctuary for immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Such policies make for political success in California — guns, grass and bigger government have propelled Newsom to the front of 2018’s gubernatorial pack, early polling suggests. But in the more socially conservative pockets of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin? Ask Hillary Clinton how that works out.

One other consideration for national Democrats: California’s ability to pull off a clean, swift election.

Last year, what with the state’s liberal mail-in ballot rules, it took more than a month for California’s secretary of state to certify all the county results in the June primary. And that election didn’t include another way the state wants to encourage voters, same-day registration, which will be in play in 2020. Calling a winner on future primary nights in California? Sounds like a job for Warren Beatty. Embarrassing.

I could be wrong and moving California to a slot near the front of the primary line could pay off for state and national pols. Certainly, if the goal is bringing more reporters here and bigger paydays for local fundraisers, consultants and campaign worker-bees, then the earlier the better.

But the early-primary proponents also posit that voting long before June will invigorate the electorate. I’d suggest that if that’s the benchmark, history indicates the primary’s date isn’t the crucial factor.

Using registered-voter turnout as the metric, the most successful California primary in recent times would be the contest held in June 1980. As in 1988, 2000, 2008 and 2016, it was a non-incumbent presidential election — that is, the sitting president in each case was termed out. What made the 1980 primary different for Golden State voters was that not one but two Californians were ballot choices: Jerry Brown on the Democratic side, and Ronald Reagan for the GOP.

Perhaps what Californians crave most isn’t more time in the presidential election spotlight but more candidates of their own to vote for.

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was chief speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson.

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