HERE’S WHAT I KNOW--As we wind down from the Iowa Caucuses and candidates move on to New Hampshire, those of us in the Golden State often bemoan our last-to-the-dance-floor position in the presidential primary season. After all, one in eight U.S. residents is a Californian and our population is much more diverse than the Hawkeye and Granite states combined. Does our June primary date keep us from making an impact in the process? And how did we end up with such a late draft pick?
For a bit of backstory, the primary system as we know it didn’t even exist until after the 1968 election when the McGovern-Fraser Commission moved the nominating decision out of the smoke-filled rooms at party conventions, giving the party rank-and-file more bang for their votes.
The Commission created a direct link between the primary and caucus voters to the delegates who would attend the party’s national convention, binding convention delegates to particular candidates. If you’ve ever watched or attended a convention, you’ll remember seeing the roll calls leading to the formal nominations.
States differ in the decision making process as to how they elect or select delegates. For example, primaries are funded and run by state governments, while caucuses are the domain of the state party; each has different goals. Primary elections resulted from reforms during the Progressive era in order to avoid any mishandling by political parties. Since the state pays for primaries, most states prefer to hold primaries instead of caucuses. However, if a state party chooses not to follow state laws governing the process, which include the date of the primary or who may participate in the election, it may opt to pony up for a caucus.
Each party gets to decide how many delegates are allocated to each state. In addition, conventions on both sides include “unpledged” delegates who are typically current or former office holders and party leaders.
Primaries also differ as to which voters may participate. In a closed primary, only registered party voters can participate; in an open primary, unaffiliated voters can participate, as well. California currently has a semi-closed primary. For 2016, the Democratic, American Independent, and Libertarian parties have notified the California Secretary of State that they will allow No Party Preference voters to request their party’s presidential ballots in the June 7 Presidential primary.
New Hampshire is an early player in the primary circuit in part due to tradition. Iowa captured the kick off because of logistics. After the 1968 primary reforms, a proposed June state convention in Des Moines wasn’t an option because there weren’t enough hotel rooms to house delegates. The earlier date didn’t have much impact in 1972 but in then 1976, Iowa pushed Jimmy Carter to the top tier of the Democratic contenders. In 2008, with a goal of introducing racial and regional diversity to the process, the Democratic Party moved the Nevada and South Carolina primaries to an earlier date.
Still, these four states are relatively small in terms of population, which prompts the question of why the primary calendar doesn’t seem to account for that. Political scientists and pundits point to the 2012 Republican Growth and Opportunity Project Report, a post-mortem referred to as the “on-ramp.” Both the Democratic and Republican National Committees prefer a slow-building nomination process, which allows for more equal footing among candidates as they make the case to voters. They fear that starting the process in a larger state or group of states might give an advantage to the best-funded candidate.
The politics of California, unlike Iowa, are diverse. Sure, it tends to swing towards the blue side, but the state has a wide mix of hard-right Central Valley conservatives, SoCal Republicans, Big City liberals and Berkeley socialists, as well as Humboldt County libertarians.
Given that California is such a populous and diverse state, is it fair that it typically doesn’t get much say since it has one of the latest primary dates? Perhaps this is this something that should change, depending upon the spread between the candidates. But why hasn’t there been more of a move to do that?
If you recall, in 1996, 2000, and 2004, our primaries were held in March. Then, in 2007, Governor Schwarzenegger signed legislation to move the 2008 primary to February 5. Although candidates did make appearances in California to discuss issues important to the state, 33 other states also moved their primaries to February 5 or earlier, biting into California’s influence.
In February 2008, voter turnout was about 39 percent, only slightly better than earlier turnouts. Clinton and McCain captured most of California’s delegates but Obama eventually became the Democratic nominee. Holding the primary in February ended up costing the state $97 million during a cash-strapped time and then the state still had to hold another primary in June that year to choose state legislative and congressional seats, resulting in a turnout that was under 20 percent.
During this election cycle, however, California could end up being a game changer. The state will send 14 percent of the total delegates needed to capture the Republican nomination to the RNC convention in Cleveland to be held July 18-21. Twenty-three percent of the delegates needed for nomination on the Democratic side will go from California to the Democratic National Convention to be held in Philadelphia on July 25-28.
If no candidate has a substantial lead in delegate count by late spring, especially on the GOP side, California could potentially put the nominee over the top since the state’s Republican delegates are allocated by congressional district in a winner-takes-all scenario.
With both parties supporting a later primary date for states like California, it may be that the primary date is unlikely to change. In spite of this, if the top two or three contenders in both parties continue their current status, then perhaps in this election, California primary voters will have a say.
Come November, though, if history repeats itself, the state’s 55 electoral votes are unlikely to go to the Republican candidate. The last GOP candidate to win the state was George H.W. Bush in 1988.
(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and writes for CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.