Dan Walters

Can California become a player in presidential nominations?

Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at Plaza Mexico in Lynwood on June 6, 2016, just before winning California’s presidential primary against Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at Plaza Mexico in Lynwood on June 6, 2016, just before winning California’s presidential primary against Sen. Bernie Sanders. Bloomberg

Here we go again. For the fifth time in recent history, California politicians want to move the state’s presidential primary, traditionally held in June, several months earlier in hopes of making it a player.

However, those previous efforts in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 failed to elevate California’s presidential clout and a fifth would likely fail again.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, is carrying Senate Bill 568, which would move the presidential primary to the third Tuesday in March, but also allow the governor to call it even earlier.

Assembly Bill 84 by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, would move the primary to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March.

Both would consolidate presidential primaries with those for the Legislature and Congress, which proved to be a fatal flaw in the past, forcing candidates to declare and begin campaigning a year before the November general election.

That raises the costs of campaigning, which results in even more intense fundraising during odd-numbered years.

“To put that in perspective,” says a legislative analysis of SB 568, “the primary election will occur before the start of the Major League Baseball season and the general election will likely … occur after the last game of the World Series.”

The rationale for both bills is that while presidential candidates habitually come to California to raise campaign funds, particularly from Southern California’s entertainment industry and among San Francisco’s high-tech executives and venture capitalists, they otherwise ignore the state.

“A state as populous and diverse as California should not be an afterthought,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in support of SB 568.

However, there’s no evidence that ordinary Californians are clamoring to become part of the presidential primary circus. Rather, the impetus for change comes from within the California political community.

The state’s politicians are jealous of the influence that party leaders in such small states as Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy. Likewise, California’s political media savor the prospect of having the state play a larger role.

In the past, however, California’s efforts to enlarge its role have failed, because other states have simply moved their primaries ahead of California. And both parties have adopted rules to discourage such one-upmanship.

Bob Mulholland, a veteran Democratic Party operative, points out in a letter to Lara that under those rules, California gained about 100 extra delegates by moving its 2012 primary back to June after experimenting with a February primary in 2008.

If the state moves its primary up to March, Mulholland noted, the state would lose 70 delegate spots for the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

There’s also this factor: An early California primary could force Democratic candidates to adopt the state party’s very liberal positions, and make it even more difficult for the nominee to regain traction in swing states such as Ohio and Wisconsin which went for Donald Trump last year.

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