Californians got a hint of political relevance last year as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled down to the wire for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clinton ultimately clinched the nomination one day before California went to the polls, again denying voters in the largest state a role in choosing a major party standard-bearer. (Donald Trump had wrapped up the Republican nomination about 10 days earlier.)
But the possibility of casting the deciding votes apparently had an impact, with voter turnout increasing by more than 50 percent over the 2012 primary.
That’s the rationale offered by California’s top elections official, among others, for moving the Golden State closer to the front of the line in 2020.
Of course, there’s more at play here than an added dose of excitement for voters.
Democrats in Sacramento will set the date for the next presidential primary with a focus on defeating Trump in the general election.
Would their party benefit more from a sprint or a marathon — a front-loaded election calendar that could quickly narrow the field, or primaries and caucuses spread over four to six months to test the candidates’ staying power and organizational skills?
The political equation is obvious. But the answer isn’t.
Did the emergence of Sanders help or harm Clinton? There are credible arguments for either side.
Neither is there any assurance that holding an earlier primary would amplify the state’s voice in the nomination process.
After holding its presidential primary in May or June for eight decades, California moved the date forward in four straight election cycles, beginning with a March 28 primary in 1996, without attracting more attention from candidates or gaining much influence, though the state remained, as always, fertile fundraising ground for candidates of all political stripes.
California’s earliest presidential primary was in 2008, when voters went to the polls on Feb. 5, barely four weeks after the Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest. But states competed in a game of political leapfrog, with seven scheduling their primaries ahead of California, and 23 others voting on Feb. 5.
Four years later, California returned to its traditional June primary.
A measure pending in the Legislature would move the primary to the third Tuesday in March, placing the state third in line after Iowa and New Hampshire. A provision of Senate Bill 568 would allow the governor to move the primary even earlier if other states jump ahead of California.
“A state as populous and diverse as California should not be an afterthought,” said Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the state’s top elections officer.
He’s right. But given the geographic size of California, its 19.4 million registered voters and the eight-figure cost of running a credible statewide campaign, most candidates will continue to spend most of their time here with big donors rather than rank-and-file voters.
An early primary also means that campaigns for county supervisor and congressional and legislative seats would be starting early, probably before Christmas. For contests that aren’t settled in the primary, there would be an eight- or nine-month wait for the general election.
A decisive presidential primary in California would be a dream come true for political junkies and journalists. But if history is any guide, it’s just that — a dream.