By Tom Elias
If any measure now before state lawmakers should be a no-brainer, it’s the bill aiming to move California’s presidential primary up into the third position during the next primary season in early 2020.
If this comes off as sponsors plan, Californians would vote in mid-March less than three years from now, and have their votes actually count for something, unlike the pattern of most of the last 50 years.
That’s where one innovation in the latest iteration of the moved-up primary idea enters: When California previously tried moving its primary up as early as Feb. 5, other states hustled into even earlier dates in a sort of devil-take-the-hindmost approach.
The key innovation to cope with this “let’s keep California meaningless” movement is a provision allowing the next California governor to move the primary up as far as needed to keep it relevant. That could enable a vote here as early as late January if other states insist on trying to beat out California.
This could happen if 2020 sees the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses staged in very early January, as sometimes happens. New Hampshire could then vote as early as mid-January, even earlier than last year, while California goes later in the month or on Feb. 3. If that’s how the calendar plays out, there would likely be a very early Super Tuesday, many other states hop-scotching to the same day as California in order to stay relevant.
This is all really about giving Californians a voice in choosing their President. The last time California voted very early, on Feb. 5, 2008, several other states moved up into January to dilute its impact. This state got a voice, but not a veto as a heavy Democratic vote here for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama was the main reason their race extended all the way into May. The state’s impact was helped when turnout for that primary was higher than for any in the previous 30 years.
One thing the early date produced was awareness by all presidential candidates of what was important to voters in the most populous state. By contrast, when Californians voted in June last year, nominations in both major parties had long since been determined.
Another recent factor may also play a big role: If California moves far up on the calendar, its recent massive use of mail-in ballots could force candidates to give it priority over smaller places with earlier Election Days. Because ballots reach so many voters about a month before Election Day, we could see campaigning here even before the Iowa caucuses. The candidates and their strategists well know that ballots sent in weeks before the official date count as much as those cast on Election Day.
So campaign rallies in December, or even November, could become commonplace here.
A very early date will be likely if the next governor – to be determined next year – wants California to have a major voice.
Even though the current legislative proposal tentatively sets the primary for the third Tuesday in March, the 15th, it would be unwise for any governor to leave it there.
That’s because other states are already front-loading. Aside from Iowa and New Hampshire, guaranteed to vote first by both major parties, Nevada and South Carolina have tentatively set their votes for Feb. 20. Crammed into the first two weeks of March are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Kansas, Michigan and others.
If California waits until March 15, it might as well keep the primary in June, for all the influence it would have. So the chances of the next governor moving the state into early February or even January are strong, with other states likely to follow suit to preserve some clout for themselves.
All this will be inconvenient for legislators, members of Congress and their prospective primary opponents, who will have to make decisions and raise money much earlier than usual because filing deadlines – coming in March when the primary falls in June – would now move to the latter part of 2019.
Too bad for them. The turnout in 2008 and the frustration of many Californians with the outcome in both parties last year assure that this state must move up or forget about having any input on vital issues for years to come.