By Tom Elias
California is in the forefront of most things. From new tax formulas to new movies, TV shows and electronic devices, from pioneering farm irrigation techniques to innovative hairstyles and much more, trends start here and often work their way across the country.
But almost no one anymore believes California has been even minimally influential in national politics for many years, despite its place as America’s largest and most innovative state.
This could change if California legislators want it to, just about three years from today.
California gave Democrat Hillary Clinton a 4.3 million vote majority in the last presidential election, but it didn’t matter much. Her rival, Donald Trump, carried the three states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by a combined total of less than one-fortieth that number, but together they gave him almost as many electoral votes as California gave Clinton, and therefore he took the presidency in what he laughably calls “an easy win.”
Short of seceding from the Union, there is little prospect for California to evade its disadvantaged status in the Electoral College. But there is another way for this state to assert itself, and that can come in the primary election process.
By allowing its presidential primary to languish in June during the last two election cycles, California opted to have next to no voice in the selection of the two major party nominees for president.
To regain a large voice in the matter, all California need do is move its primary up into mid-February, about two weeks behind New Hampshire’s protected slot as first primary in the nation and Iowa’s as the first caucus.
That move would not negate the Electoral College disadvantage now seeing a vote in Montana or Wyoming or Delaware count for about 1.3 times as much as one in California. But it would at least give California a voice in choosing the nominees, something this state habitually allows others to do.
That’s to our detriment. As Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Mullin of South San Francisco observed in submitting a bill to put California into the first Super Tuesday voting of the next primary season, “There’s not enough discussion of substantive issues that are crucial to Californians.”
This includes everything from immigration to oil drilling, from affordable health care to water rights and water systems. None of it gets debated in California. In fact, almost nothing was debated in California during the last two election cycles.
It didn’t have to be that way. There was nothing, for example, preventing California from scheduling its 2016 primary on Feb. 16, one week after New Hampshire. Or on Feb. 23, the same day Nevada Republicans caucused with fanfare.
Those places each had a voice in the choice, a major one. Would the likes of Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham and George Pataki, all with major experience in high office, have dropped out as early as they did if California’s winner-take-all GOP primary still loomed? Doubtful, because a California plurality could have provided one of them almost 20 percent of what was needed for nomination.
Would Bernard Sanders have knocked out Clinton early because of his strong support in California, thus setting up a very different November election?
These questions are open, but show how a moved-up California might have reshaped things.
Mullin’s bill would set California’s primary in March in presidential years, compromising with colleagues who believe February is too early. But why compromise on this? If California needs to spend $100 million or so for a presidential primary separate from the ordinary June vote on every other significant state office, why not? That’s a pittance in terms of this state’s budget of more than $200 billion, pennies per person. It would it be worth far more to allow Californians to feel involved. The savings in psychotherapy bills alone could top $100 million, plus there would actually be national candidate advertising and campaigning in California, something almost unseen here in more than eight years.
The bottom line is that it’s been unconscionable for legislators to keep the primary in June in presidential years, just so they can have more convenient filing deadlines and leisurely fund-raising schedules.
The need for an early primary has never been more obvious and hats off to Mullin for being first to do something about it.