If ever there was a no-brainer in California’s Legislature, it is the current proposal to move this state’s presidential primary vote up from early June to early February.
The only real question to be answered here is why the vote was moved back from March to June in the first place. The answer, of course, is that the original move to March didn’t accomplish its purpose.
In 1996, California switched all primary voting to the second Tuesday in March during presidential years, as lawmakers finally responded to 24 years of Californians having virtually no voice at all in choosing presidential candidates.
This meant that since 1972, when California made George McGovern the Democratic nominee against Richard Nixon, the nation’s largest state had been impotent in one of the most vital American democratic functions.
But no sooner had California switched its primary, than the likes of South Carolina, Minnesota and other much smaller states front-loaded their primaries, slipping them into February. The state’s move was thwarted and it remained a primary-season backwater.
California made no effort to vote in February because its presidential voting has always been combined with primaries for the state Legislature, Congress and the U.S. Senate. A February primary vote was deemed too early, setting up nine-month runoff campaigns.
So California remained impotent, and the Legislature joined Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in throwing up their hands in frustration after 2004, moving the whole thing back to the traditional June date, which was still observed in non-presidential years, anyway.
But now America is entering the most wide-open presidential campaign in generations, with no incumbent president or vice president in the running for the first time since 1952. Should California have no voice in the choice? Should its only function be as a cash cow to be tapped by all the candidates, who would then pay attention only to the wealthiest of this state’s residents?
The answer to both questions is plainly no. Said Schwarzenegger, “We are the No. 1 state in the nation, we are the No. 1 place in the world and we are an afterthought in the presidential campaign.”
But there are some apparent difficulties: One is that switching the California presidential primary (plus a few ballot measures automatically due up in the next statewide vote of any kind) alone to early February (and no one seriously contemplates holding the rest of the races that early) would cost about $50 million. The proper response to that legitimate concern is that getting early attention from presidential candidates could produce far more for the state than a paltry $50 million.
George W. Bush’s early commitment to support ethanol in gasoline, made to Iowa caucus voters in 2000, produces billions of dollars yearly for that state’s farmers and even more for its neighboring corn-producing states. Imagine what an early presidential commitment to restore California freeways to their 1960s condition might mean, or a commitment to solving the San Francisco Bay/Delta water quality problems.
Another problem with an early vote is that it would favor candidates who build up substantial war chests well in advance of the primary season. But recent history shows that when candidates win in the earliest caucus states (previously only Iowa, but Nevada this year, too) and follow with success in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, they quickly attract large bankrolls.
Such money could then be deployed quickly in California, which in recent primary seasons shipped between $150 million and $190 million in campaign cash to other states, while getting virtually none of it back.
Then there’s the advantage to politicians. Ever since a November vote in Los Angeles to extend city council term limits, state politicians of all stripes have had hope their own limits might also be extended. Schedule a presidential vote in early February, and legislators could easily add a proposition to extend term limits to that ballot. If that measure passed, soon-to-be-termed-out lawmakers like Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez would then have plenty of time to file for reelection.
All of which means an early presidential primary vote makes sense to just about everyone involved. Even though several other states have already moved their own primaries up to February 5 in anticipation of a California switch, the early date would give California voters a significant voice for the first time in 36 years. So what if it might also give politicians a chance at a longer lease on political life? That decision is ultimately up to the voters, no matter what.
All of which makes this one good idea that will most likely happen.