The Legislature recently passed a bill that will move California’s presidential primary from June up to Super Tuesday – which will be March 3, 2020.
Upon Governor Brown signing the bill, Secretary of State Alex Padilla told the Los Angeles Times that, “candidates will not be able to ignore the largest, most diverse state in the nation as they seek our country’s highest office.”
When reading these statements, I thought to myself, where have I heard that before?
California has tried several different experiments over the past two decades to try and boost the Golden State’s influence in the presidential nominating process. Each one has flopped.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, California has moved up its presidential primary four times in the past two decades. In 1996, 2000, and 2004, the Golden State’s presidential primaries were held in March. In 2008, our primary was held in February.
In every case, California’s votes failed to prove decisive. Most famously, California Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton during the spirited 2008 primary nomination race that was eventually won by Barack Obama. Al Gore and John Kerry had largely locked up their respective nominations by the time California voted in 2000 and 2004.
Early primaries also did not excite the state’s voters. Only 31.47 percent of eligible Californians voted in 1996’s primary and 30.54 percent did so in 2004’s primary. Even in 2008, which was arguably the most exciting primary race in recent memory, just 39.52 percent of eligible Californians bothered to vote.
California Republicans have also tried to change the process to increase the party’s influence. In 1999, when I was a young legislative aide, I worked on legislation (Senate Bill 380) to change how GOP delegates are allocated from winner-take-all statewide to the winner of each Congressional district’s votes.
This change was promoted to give California a greater say in picking the Republican nominee, yet we’ve continued to be little more than a primary ATM machine since the process was changed. President Bush was unopposed in 2004, and the race was over by the time California Republicans voted in 2012 and 2016. John McCain was well on his way to winning the nomination in 2008 when we voted.
Instead of making California’s votes decisive in determining the party nominees, our state has fared about as well under these changes as Charlie Brown has every time Lucy pulled away the football.
Part of the reason why California hasn’t really mattered is that it’s typically all but over by the time we cast our votes. Like it or not, it’s still all about Iowa and New Hampshire, despite efforts in recent years to increase the importance of other states. Also, despite our flair for insurgent candidates, California Democrats and Republicans typically cast their votes for the front-runner or the establishment candidate. Our state’s traditional voting patterns are hardly a blueprint for thwarting the front-runner at the last minute.
At the end of the day, I would bet that this latest change will have just as much effect in increasing California’s role in picking the next presidential nominee. The “largest, most diverse state” will once again have virtually no say in picking the next presidential nomination winner.
Tim Anaya is communications director for the Pacific Research Institute.