With New York’s presidential primary a few days away, and with fewer and fewer states remaining in the race, there’s one fact that’s particularly tantalizing to Californians: For the first time in a long time, our vote will matter.
That’s because both the Republican and Democratic nomination races are close this year, which means Californian voters will actually have a say in which candidates receive the majority of delegates needed for the nomination.
And you know what? It’s nice to be a part of the process for once.
The reason California hasn’t mattered in years past is because its primary is so late. Though voting has been taking place since early February, California won’t get a say until June 7, a fact that has relegated the state to a mere afterthought in many a presidential primary.
Since each state gets to decide when to hold its primary, the solution is simple: Gov. Jerry Brown should split state nominations from the national nomination races, which should be held in March when a number of states vote. Brown must also provide a relatively small amount of state funding to ensure that county budgets can deal with the added costs.
The important thing is that Californians get a vote before candidates get a majority of delegates, which for all intents and purposes makes them the winner.
In all but the closest races, candidates will normally have a majority before California’s June primary. In 2008, Barack Obama won enough delegates to be declared the presumptive nominee on June 3. John McCain did the same in March. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the nomination in May.
This means that California, the third largest state with a top-10 global gross domestic product output and 12 percent of the U.S. population, has been rendered nearly irrelevant in the primary process. In contrast, Iowa and New Hampshire – the first two states to vote – are considered must-wins for any presidential hopeful, but have a combined population that’s less than half of the greater Los Angeles region.
This is a startling discrepancy. California deserves to be at the forefront of any discussion of presidential politics. While California voters have significant pull in the general election with 55 electoral votes – the largest number, followed by Texas’s 38 votes – the state has consistently voted Democratic in presidential elections since Bill Clinton’s first term and is only becoming more Democratic overall because of growing urban areas.
This essentially means California’s voice in the debate for the presidency is more relevant in the primary elections, which remain competitive in the state.
It wasn’t always so difficult for California’s primaries to matter. Until 2005, California actually held its primary in March, but high costs supposedly caused the state to move the primary calendar later. Counties shoulder a majority of costs for the election – which includes organizing voting locations and distributing information. And this can add up – the February 2008 presidential primary cost $96 million statewide, whereas legislators estimated moving the 2012 California primary to a later date saved the state tens of millions of dollars.
However, the slightly higher cost of an earlier primary is outweighed by the cost of California’s voices being silenced. Moreover, the state could easily pitch in more funds to help counties bear the burden.
If one thing should be clear though, it’s that holding a primary earlier matters. While Romney was named the 2012 Republican nominee before the California primary in June, the 2008 California primaries were held in February and were vital in deciding John McCain’s nomination at the time. Voters realized the futility of the June 2012 primary and turnout plummeted to 31 percent from almost 60 percent in 2008.
This year, races are much closer. FiveThirtyEight predicts that by June, presidential candidate Donald Trump will still not have the delegate majority needed to clinch the nomination and avoid the possibility of a contested convention. They predict Trump will have about 1,150 out of the 1,237 he needs for a majority. This means that despite the late primary, California will be instrumental in deciding whether a contested convention is possible with its 341 available delegates.
It’s not only the Republican primary that matters. In 2008 – when the state held its primary in February – candidate Hillary Clinton won more delegates than President Obama in California. Though Clinton ultimately would fail to win the nomination, California’s vote allowed her campaign to run a longer course and stimulate more debate.
By chance, this year’s primary will matter in California despite the lateness of the vote. But this is the exception that proves the rule. California mattering in a primary season should be the norm, and it’s up to the state government to take the steps to make that a reality.