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California is sick of being a presidential campaign afterthought. Here's one lawmaker's fix

California is sick of being a presidential campaign afterthought. Here's one lawmaker's fix
California Democrats have not voted in a meaningful primary since 1968, when N.Y. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy carried the state. (Library of Congress / Quirk Books)

Poor California.

So big. So beautiful. So frustrated.

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Every four years, as smaller, less cutting-edge states are lavished with love and attention from presidential candidates, California is all but ignored, like one of those kids, nose to the glass, smudging up a candy store window.

Sure, White House hopefuls parachute into the state on a not-infrequent basis. They breeze through Pacific Heights or Bel-Air, gathering checks they quickly spirit off to spend elsewhere. Sometimes they'll throw in a photo opportunity or chat up a local reporter on the ride between the airport and a fundraising stop.

Yes, damage from the drought/recent flooding/mudslide/earthquake is a terrible thing. And, gee whiz, look at what they're up to these days in Silicon Valley!

Then it's so long until time for the next cash infusion, which has started some folks in Sacramento to grousing.

Again.

It's been nearly 50 years since California held a truly consequential Democratic presidential primary and more than half a century since Republicans in the state voted in a nominating contest that really mattered.

So an effort is underway once more to move California's primary up closer to the start of the 2020 balloting, theoretically elevating the state's import and, thus, ensuring a greater political say.

"California's the six-largest economy in the world and should be shaping the national discussion in the presidential primary process," said Assemblyman Kevin Mullin.

The Democrat from San Mateo is sponsoring legislation that would shift California's presidential primary from June to early March, placing it smack in the midst of the coast-to-coast balloting known as Super Tuesday. (In nonpresidential years, such as 2018, the state would continue its June primary.)

If it sounds familiar, well, that's because it is.

For those counting — don't bother, we did it for you — the shift would mark the sixth time in recent decades that California has fiddled with the timing of its presidential primary. Since 1992, the date has bounced among June, March, February and back again.

While voter participation fluctuated — not surprisingly, turnout soared in 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama brawled for the Democratic nomination — the state's political clout, or lack thereof, didn't change much.

That has a little to do with the nature of presidential politicking. And a lot to do with California.

For decades, Iowa and New Hampshire have enjoyed a privileged place on the political calendar, with voters there casting the first ballots of the election season in precinct-level caucuses in Iowa and, eight days later, a primary in New Hampshire.

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Many have challenged the states' enormous influence, to no avail. For one thing, few running for president want to alienate Iowa or New Hampshire voters by opposing their coveted status; since the two states gained preeminence, no candidate has won the White House without seriously competing in at least one or the other.

And reform efforts don't always work as expected. When California sought to elbow its way into the presidential action, advancing its primary in 1996, it served only to elevate the import of the two lead-off states.

It’s very hard to create that buzz if you’re campaigning in Redding and have it reach down to Fresno or Bakersfield.


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As John Kasich quite rightly explained in 1999, the first time the Ohio Republican ran for president, "I would love to campaign in California. I can't even think about that until I get out of Iowa and New Hampshire.… If I die in New Hampshire … there'll be no California." (He ultimately quit the race without even making it to Iowa.)

Of course, other states weren't about to slink back in California's outsized shadow. They too pushed their elections forward, resulting in an absurdly front-loaded nominating process.

On Feb. 5, 2008 — Super-Duper Tuesday — California was one of 24 states voting in what, effectively, amounted to a nationwide primary. Needless to say, with so much ground to cover in such a short time California was again little more than a pit stop.

Figuring it wasn't worth the tens of millions it cost to hold separate presidential and nonpresidential primaries, the state in 2012 pushed its balloting back to June, where it remains.

But all those are political explanations. There are other reasons the state has been sidelined in presidential races, which no legislation, however well-intentioned, can change.

Size is perhaps foremost. California is huge, stretching more than 500 miles east to west and 1,000-plus miles north to south; that's about the distance from Augusta, Maine, to Columbia, S.C.

Campaigning in California is time-consuming and, more important, terribly expensive. Forget about shaking hands or hosting town hall meetings. The only way to reach a meaningful number of voters is by running costly TV ads. That's why candidates prefer running in much smaller states.

As Steve Schmidt, a veteran GOP strategist, once explained, "Even if a person hasn't actually met a candidate, someone in their family probably has. A mother, brother, cousin, or maybe the wife of a close friend. That creates a buzz."

In California, "It's very hard to create that buzz if you're campaigning in Redding and have it reach down to Fresno or Bakersfield."

Still, Mullin believes moving up the primary is worth another try, especially as an increasing number of Californians enjoy the convenience of voting by mail; that, he said, means millions will be casting ballots even before Super Tuesday rolls around, forcing candidates to pay more attention early on.

"The reality is there's no way to guarantee that California will be decisive," Mullin said, but moving the primary to early March "will certainly increase the likelihood that we will be able to shape the national discussion."

Of course, you can't have everything. Even if California remains a political afterthought, there are worse things than living in a coastal Eden.

@markzbarabak on Twitter

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