It may be the most populous state in the union, with the most beachfront, the most billionaires, and the most bodacious celebrities, but California just can't seem to matter to the rest of the country – at least when it comes to presidential politics.
While candidates routinely kowtow to Iowa and New Hampshire, on account of their early place in the primary schedule, California is just a place where politicians go to David Geffen's house and beg for cash.
And so every once in a while, Californians get the bright idea to move up their primary in the hopes of snatching some attention and maybe even helping out a homegrown candidate. We last tried this in 2008, to little effect, other than costing the state nearly $100 million, since it strangely decided to hold two different primaries that year (one for the presidency, one for everything else). Four years later, back to June it went.
Now the state is taking another shot at relevancy. On Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 568, which moves both the presidential and state-wide primary from the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in June to the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in March, which, in 2020, falls on March 3.
“The Prime Time Primary puts California voters in the front seat in choosing our next president and will change our elections for the better,” said Senator Ricardo Lara, author of SB 568, in a statement. “We have a responsibility to drive a different agenda at the national level.”
So will the change make a difference? Josh Putnam, a political scientist who blogs about the election calendar (a scintillating topic, to be sure) at FrontloadingHQ, says it's probably too early to tell what the impact might be. That's because other states will surely change their primary schedules. In 2008, for example, California's move to February set off a rush of other states following suit, setting up an extra-super Tuesday (aka mega Tuesday, giga Tuesday, tsunami Tuesday, etc.) of 24 states.
“This might set off another stampede,” Putnam says. “That’s more likely than not.”
Which, he says, “defeats the purpose. Part of the motivation for moving the primary forward is to get a lot of attention, for the candidates to speak to our issues. That hasn’t worked when California has tried the same thing in the past.”
On the Democratic side, California will also lose 70 delegates, which were given as a bonus to states which held out until the summer. And since delegates are handed out proportionally, the chances of a big, game-changing primary win in California are low. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders by 7 points, and only picked up a net of 33 delegates. It wasn't enough to knock Sanders out of the race.
Some have speculated that an early California primary could help California candidates – Senator Kamala Harris, for example, or even Mayor Eric Garcetti. But again, with the proportional delegate rule and other states like Texas and Massachusetts also holding their primary that day, the impact of a California win would likely be diminished. And besides, being from California is no guarantee of winning in California. Just ask Governor Jerry Brown, who came a distant third in the contest in 1980 – although, to be fair, that was in June, when his campaign was all but lost already.
Would an earlier California primary have helped keep Brown competitive? Maybe, maybe not. A March 15 Florida primary torpedoed Marco Rubio's presidential bid, since the senator was expected to do far better than he did in his home state.
California is a tough place to run an insurgent campaign. It's big, and it's expensive to buy television ads. Which means the move could, at least at the margins, help well-financed candidates.
“It helps big fund-raising candidates,” says political consultant Mac Zilber. “It potentially really hurts the ones who are unknown and trying to break through.”
It could also help celebrity candidates.
In applauding the new law, state Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman called California the “the beating heart of the national resistance to Trump.” But it's possible that the change could actually help Donald Trump stay in power.
Imagine the following scenario: the President, lagging in polls, faces a strong primary challenge from a moderate, adult candidate like John Kasich. They fight a long, drawn-out primary that lasts until the convention. If California was to vote in June, like before, there's a chance that Kasich could get a big win, since before, California assigned some of its delegates on a winner-take-all basis. But an earlier primary means, according to the Republican party's own rules, that those delegates would be assigned proportionally. That would soften the impact of any victory.
“The weight of the win for the ultimate winner may be less on Republican side,” says Putnam. “And it’s going to take a substantial victory to get a big boost out of that.”
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