Monday, January 29, 2007

Early California Primary Likely to Have Little Effect

There's been discussion in California of moving the state's presidential primary earlier into the campaign season to give California a larger voice in selecting the major party nominees. In Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Philip Trounstine published an excellent commentary on the push to frontload the California nomination vote. Trounstine suggests that moving up the state's primary may not make that much of a difference, and in fact may be self-defeating, by giving the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire even more power:

WITH SUPPORT FROM Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and leaders of both parties in the Legislature, the prospects are looking good that California will move its 2008 presidential primary from June to February.

That would put the contest for the largest bloc of delegates (about 12% or so) needed to win a party nomination at the front end of the nominating process, after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

From the standpoint of California — which traditionally has served as little more than an ATM for campaign cash — this would be a good thing. Why should such a big and important state weigh in at the end of the nominating process, when the races are all but settled by puny, one-dimensional states that matter not a lick in November? Think about it:

• Iowa, which is 92% white, has a population about the size of San Diego County.
• New Hampshire — 94% white — is smaller than Sacramento County.
• Nevada's population is just a bit larger than that of San Bernardino County, and South Carolina's is considerably smaller than the San Francisco Bay Area's.

To run well in California, a presidential primary candidate can't get by with boutique issues and handshakes in living rooms and coffee shops. He or she must demonstrate broad appeal to party members, must not only be able to perform hand-to-hand politics but display a media presence and the ability to speak to myriad constituencies on a wide range of issues.

And because you don't exist in California politics if you're not on TV, a candidate must have the ability to raise and spend a lot of money effectively. But that's not enough. He or she has to have something to say, for without a clear and simple strategic message, no candidate can capture California.

A Democrat who wants to carry California must appeal to labor liberals in Los Angeles and Oakland, to gun-rack flag wavers in Fresno and Bakersfield, tree huggers in Marin and Ventura counties and high-tech pragmatists in San Jose and San Diego. He or she has to connect with Latinos, blacks and Asians without driving away white union members in Long Beach.

A Republican has to appeal to churchgoers in Riverside and Anaheim, business owners in Redlands and Huntington Beach, middle managers in Fullerton and Pasadena, farmers and ranchers in Modesto and Delano. He or she has to capture the pro-life, prayer-in-school crowd without alienating all those moderate suburban Little League parents.

In short, a candidate who can capture California, with all its diversity, can be competitive in his or her party in virtually all the big states — Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio, for example. A statewide victor in California is a national, not just a regional, candidate. Win California and you're ready for prime time.
It's a good piece. Trounstine argues that if a number of other states also decide to hold their primaries on February 5th, we'd have essentially a national primary, with California's potential clout being diluted by the nationwide campaign and diversified media attention. The traditional bump of momentum the Iowa and New Hampshire winners get would be magnified, and the candidates with the largest campaign warchests -- those best able to stay in the race and get their message out -- would be the beneficiaries. Hello Hillary, Barack, John (McCain), and Rudy!

Trounstine then mentions the usual drawbacks to the process: The voters won't have much time to weigh the various candidacies, with the powerful media having more influence on the outcomes than individual-level evalution and reflection. This is an old story, that seems to be getting worse every four years. Fundraising gets more intense every season, with low levels of primary participation, and the weighted influence of the early states, making the eventual nomination results unrepresentative of the broader national mainstream.

No comments: