At the risk of sounding like Donald Trump, let me say it’s just stupid that California won’t play a significant role in picking the next president. It’s even dumber that the small state of Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation caucuses and swing status in general elections, is a presidential kingmaker.
So why don’t we do something about it?
Yes, California has moved its primaries up in the calendar to try to make itself important. But that won’t work because the small-fry states of Iowa and New Hampshire have hoodwinked the country into believing that small, rural places are better presidential proving grounds and give a chance to lesser-known candidates. No matter where California shows up on the calendar, we are easily dismissed for our size – too big to be more than a test of money and name recognition.
We need an entirely new strategy. We have to out-Iowa Iowa. We must make ourselves smaller.
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How? California is a collection of regions the size of normal states. So let’s pick one region that offers all the things Iowa offers – small population, a rural character, an engaged political culture – and hold an early presidential contest there.
My fellow Californians, let me introduce you to the Central Coast Caucus.
Offered to the nation as a single political entity, the six Central Coast counties – Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz – could answer every argument that’s ever been made for Iowa’s primacy.
You want a small population? The Central Coast has just 2.3 million people, 800,000 less than Iowa. You hate big cities? The Central Coast's most populous municipality, Oxnard, has fewer people than the metropolis of Des Moines. You want rural voters who know their agriculture? Iowa has corn, but the Central Coast has Ventura berries, Salinas lettuce and all the wineries in between. (And heavy drinking may be necessary for today’s presidential politics to make any sense).
Iowa and the Central Coast are both middling, between larger, more important places. Both have relatively competitive politics that incorporate extremes, but tend to the moderate. While Iowans boast that they pick winners, the Central Coast includes the state’s most reliable political bellwether, San Benito County.
But the Central Coast also offers much more than Iowa – more diversity, stronger universities (UC Santa Cruz, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, UC Santa Barbara), better scenery (Big Sur) and more striking venues for campaign events (Pebble Beach, Neverland Ranch).
And if you give the media and political professionals a choice between spending the winter in Sioux City or Santa Maria, California would take Iowa’s crown as the most important early contest.
The Central Coast Caucus would be good for California. The national attention would force our weak county parties to raise their games. Young people from all over California would work on campaigns, learning skills and making connections that can change their lives.
Candidates would confront overlooked issues such as homelessness in Santa Barbara and the perils of offshore oil drilling. Public health might get a boost from candidates doing photo ops at yoga classes in Seaside instead of greasy spoons in Cedar Rapids. (I’d pay good money to see Sen. Ted Cruz try kite surfing). The heavy reliance on migrant labor in Central Coast agriculture might force candidates to speak more humanely about immigration.
The Central Coast Caucus would require potential presidents to speak directly with Californians. And it would demonstrate that it takes only a small piece of this great state to conquer the world.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.
Editor’s note: This column has been updated to reflect that Oxnard, not Salinas, is the most populous city in the six Central Coast counties.