Politics & Policy

Once Again, California Attempts to Be Relevant in the Primaries

Voters cast ballots during the presidential primary election in Montebello, Calif., June 7, 2016. (Reuters photo: Mario Anzuoni)
But California is certainly no bellwether, and it doesn’t deserve to have an outsize role early in the process.

Last week, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that moves California’s 2020 primary up to March, an attempt to make the state more relevant in the candidate-nomination process. Often stuck in June, the California primary is a woefully unnecessary one — so late that the leading candidate has already been selected and even California’s massive number of delegates can’t help propel a come-from-behind nomination. Californians have felt left out.

Until SB 568, that is. SB 568 will apparently change all that. AP reported that Kevin Mullin, the Democratic assemblyman representing San Mateo, said, “Governor Brown’s signature on SB 568 gives all Californians a more powerful voice in presidential primary elections.” Democratic-party chairman Eric Bauman has also argued that SB 568 will make Californians’ voices relevant early in the process .

Actually, SB 568 won’t do anything. And Governor Brown must’ve felt odd signing it. Six years ago, he signed a bill that purported to do the same thing. So did Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, nine years ago. In fact, California has advanced its primary five times since 1994. Each time, the other states just move up their primaries, leapfrogging one another until they wind up in the same position as before, only far closer together. In 2008, for example, Schwarzenegger’s primary-move-up bill bumped the vote to February. By the time California’s primary rolled around, 33 states had moved theirs to California’s date or earlier. That’s not including primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada: Both parties’ committees have consistently ruled that these states’ primaries must precede other states’.

By now, the California primary-rescheduling bill has become little more than a meaningless perennial symbol of political activism. But it does highlight several interesting and rarely discussed consequences of a delegate-based primary system. First, when states such as California try to assert their influence by moving up their primary, the election season becomes farcically long. In 2008, for example, the gap between well over half of the states’ primaries and the general election in November was longer than the entire Major League Baseball season. Florida voters in Tampa Bay selected Hillary Clinton in their January 29 primary; watched the Rays play 162 games, make the post-season, and lose the World Series to the Phillies; and then went back to the polls to vote for Barack Obama in November.

Second, states always want to be first in a primary system because that gives them a larger role in choosing the nominee. The first states often act as bellwethers, indicating to the national party how the country overall will vote. Historically, Democrats and Republicans have agreed that the traditional early-primary states mentioned above should retain their spots because they are actually bellwethers for the four regions of the U.S. — Iowa for the Midwest, New Hampshire for New England, South Carolina for the South, and Nevada for the West. These states are historically moderate enough within their region that they have been accurate indicators of how the country is leaning and which candidate has the highest chance of winning the general election.

So, naturally, the earlier a state votes, the more likely it is that the state’s voters will choose the candidate they want. And of course California wants to go first; every state does. But there’s a reason it never will: California is a terrible bellwether. The state’s presidential-election accuracy is nothing to sneeze at — it chose seven out of the last ten winners — but that’s entirely by accident. It votes rigidly along party lines, selecting the Democrat in every election since 1992 and the Republican in every election except one between 1952 and 1988. In fact, the DNC even rewarded California with 70 additional delegates at the 2016 convention when it didn’t move its primary back during that year’s election cycle.

Not only does California look nothing like the rest of America, it actively rejects the rest of America and prefers to retreat into radicalism and political self-obsession.

Many California politicians, in explaining why they support SB 568, have shed light on why the state is such a bad bellwether. Mullin, for example, stated that California’s diverse population should guarantee that it has a strong voice in the nominee selection. Bauman pointed to the state’s embrace of “progressive values,” which he called the future of the party. But the state’s noted diversity and its embrace of radical liberalism mean that California couldn’t possibly be an accurate representation of how the country will vote. Not only does it look nothing like the rest of America, it actively rejects the rest of America and prefers to retreat into radicalism and political self-obsession. It is either incensed or enamored about a candidate, never undecided, and it broadcasts its opinion from the rooftops with vitriol. Politics is so crucial to Californians’ self-identification that they even have a political “national guard” to defend their ideology, in Antifa.

So what could an early California primary tell Democratic leadership? Only once since 2000 have the state’s primary voters selected the nominee who was not already leading: Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. Since 1992, California has essentially told the Democratic party that it will vote for whatever candidate the party nominates. Where California has its strongest influence is in the national party’s platform, which, for the past 15 years, has basically been a restatement of whatever Californians believe.

An early California primary may not have much to offer Democrats, but it might put the state in a strategic position for spoiling Donald Trump’s chances at reelection. If California selects a candidate other than Trump in its theoretically early Republican primary, it could increase support for a challenger to the president and exploit the divide between Trump’s loyal base and his not-so-loyal “better-than-Hillary” crowd. California voters might thereby orchestrate an upset in a Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders–style showdown.

And this is the third consequence of a primary system: A state can act as a spoiler by selecting a nominee who satisfies its political goals without actually representing what that state — or the rest of the country — wants. Like the short-lived campaign to elect Hillary Clinton by persuading electors to switch their pledged votes, such political maneuvering is technically legal but selfish and damaging to a republic. For an example of how to behave during primaries, Californians should look to 1964, the last time they were influential in a Republican primary. By selecting Barry Goldwater over Nelson Rockefeller, Californians gave Goldwater just enough support to launch him to the nomination. Here we see California’s true role in the primary system: using its large number of delegates to settle a close race late in the season. Held on June 2, California’s primary was the last in 1964. That year, it was also by far the most important.

Of course, California is not the only state that behaves this way. Some states in the South, for example, are proud of their against-the-current political declarations. And I, for one, welcome proud political declaration. Shout it from the rooftops. March in the streets. Use the First Amendment. But don’t expect to be trusted as the voice of a nation.


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