And so, in the end it turns out moving California’s presidential primary up into early February was a good thing for the state.
With turnout way up from the March primary of four years ago, Californians more than anyone else made Sen. John McCain the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination and kept Sen. Hillary Clinton in a narrow lead on the Democratic side, even if both are still far from clinching anything.
Not only that, but all the presidential prospects were thoroughly exposed to California, something not likely to happen this fall, when most analysts expect this state to be solidly Democratic and thus not a battleground.
Yes, they traveled to the monied precincts of West Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Nob Hill, where presidential hopefuls always go to raise money, but also the Central Valley and the Inland Empire areas around San Bernardino and Riverside and to East Los Angeles, Oakland, Orange County, and San Diego.
These are places where candidates sometimes appear briefly during general election campaigns and sometimes not, but because no California primary had mattered since 1972, past hopefuls never needed to go there during the nomination process.
Because voters there did matter this year, Californians can expect that whoever wins the White House will be familiar with the state’s budget woes and its water problems. The new president will be aware of possible prison releases and park closures, plus the reality of illegal immigrants using public services from schools to emergency rooms.
That means California will not again be treated as something akin to a foreign country, as in the presidencies of both George Bushes, best evidenced by the first President Bush once observing during a brief Silicon Valley visit that he was happy to be in “North California” and by the second President Bush having his Environmental Protection Agency try to nix California’s attempts to fight worldwide climate change.
This time, Barack Obama stood in California gas stations promoting biodiesel fuel and ate lunch at Google’s Mountain View headquarters. Hillary Clinton met with Latinos worried their relatives might be deported. And because McCain personally eyeballed the oil slick that formed after a ship nicked one of the pillars of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and walked Southern California beaches, he is well aware of the dangers from oil spills, tankers, and drilling rigs.
How much did candidates stress California? Clinton’s first stop after winning the New Hampshire primary was a labor rally in East Los Angeles, something no one would have bothered with if the California vote had been much later.
It’s possible a little of this might have occurred even if California had not moved up its primary. For sure, this state would have received even more attention had many other states not matched the California move-up and staged primaries on the same day. But even with states like New York and Illinois voting simultaneously, California still provided more than one-fourth of the Democratic convention delegates up for grabs in the 22 states that voted and far more Republican delegates than any other state.
The bottom-line fact is that California got more attention from the politicians than during any primary season in decades because the outcome in both parties was still uncertain. For once, the dog wagged the tail, not the other way around.
Why is all this important? For three reasons: First the state can be sure that when issues vital here are considered during the next administration, the Oval Office occupant will be at least slightly conversant with them. Then there’s the economic benefit, as hotels, charter airplane operators, rental car services, and mass media all took in millions of dollars that in other years would have gone elsewhere. That meant profits and jobs for Californians and it meant at least some of the campaign money donated here was actually spent here.
Most importantly, the early date meant that Californians felt their votes counted. It gave them strong motive to vote either by absentee ballot or by trekking to the polls.
This should translate to a higher-than-usual turnout next fall, since primary election voters are much more likely to vote again than people who did not.
As matters played out, the entire primary election system was essentially validated: Low-budget, foot-campaigning states like Iowa and New Hampshire winnowed down the field in both parties. Then it was up to Californians and others voting on February 5.
Yes, it might be better if the entire process were delayed a few months, placing meaningful primaries closer to the November runoff vote. But in today’s faster-paced world, it’s unlikely America will ever again see such a leisurely schedule.
Which means voting early was the best thing California could do for itself, a lesson state legislators would do well to remember when setting the date for the 2012 primary.