June 6, 2016
This year’s California primary was a bit of a tease. Bernie Sanders has contested it in full, spending virtually all of the last two weeks in the Golden State. He attended a Warriors game, ordered from In-N-Out Burger, even gave a quick stump speech to an outdoor spin class in Santa Monica. It was the Pacific version of going to the Iowa State Fair, or hitting up a bunch of diners in New Hampshire.
It’s fun having a presidential candidate in your state. Bernie has benefitted. If he wins tomorrow, this two week press will have greatly contributed. If he falls short, the tour will have closed the margin of defeat. He made enough progress to force the Clintons back to California, for reasons beyond raising money. Over the past several days, Hillary and Bill have held several events, though they’ve confined themselves to the couple/few largest media markets. Bernie was everywhere.
Once upon a time, this was customary. As the biggest prize in early June, with a couple week gap after the previous round of contests, candidates have time to devote a full two to three weeks. Back when many states did not hold primaries or caucuses for regular voters to participate in, the parties didn’t have a presumptive nominee this early. As the largest and final contest of the pre-convention period, it was a way for insurgent candidates to make their mark.
1964’s GOP contest pitted Barry Goldwater against Nelson Rockefeller. The winner would go into the convention as the favorite. For a couple weeks, both candidates traversed the state. Polling showed a close race. Rockefeller flew home to New York the weekend before the vote to attend to the birth of his first child with his second wife. This reminded voters of his controversial divorce and contributed to Goldwater’s narrow victory.
In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy rebounded from a defeat in Oregon to defeat Eugene McCarthy. Today, the primary is remembered most for what happened to Kennedy after his victory speech, as Sirhan Sirhan fatally shot him in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen. But this came at the end of another very contested two week run, in which both candidates criss-crossed the state. At the time he began his fateful walk through the kitchen, RFK was seen as having taken a crucial step towards winning the nomination.
Four years later, the Democrats were at it again. In a reprise of the Goldwater/Rockefeller race, an insurgent candidate was attempting to gain a key victory heading into the convention. George McGovern had several wins in his ledger, but the 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey was attempting to get another shot at Richard Nixon.
Again, the candidates covered the state, and even participated in a televised debate. Back in 1972, there was no organized schedule of party sponsored debates, beginning well before anyone voted in Iowa. Instead, they happened on an ad hoc basis among whichever candidates were contesting a given state and were sponsored by a local television station, much as it would for a statewide candidate for governor or senator.
The 1976 GOP race is the last to enter the convention without an assured outcome. As the process developed into a series of primaries and caucuses in every state, it became far easier for candidates to clinch the nomination prior to the convention, usually well before California voted in June.
The 1984 battle between Gary Hart and Walter Mondale is the last time a June primary was of any significance, as Hart was attempting to close a delegate gap before the convention. Like this year, he’d exceeded expectations against the establishment favorite, but was looking at a deficit with super delegates while also trailing among earned delegates. Dual victories in California and New Jersey would give him ammunition to make the insiders reconsider.
Hart won the Golden State, but lost New Jersey. Though Mondale didn’t have enough earned delegates to clinch the nomination, the super delegates put him over the top and he entered the convention as the assumed nominee, much as Clinton plans to next month. So Californians went 32 years between June primaries of even passing importance.
In between, the state attempted to increase its relevance by changing the date. In 2008, California participated in Super Tuesday, allowing voters to jump in to the fray on February 5. The catch was 23 other states participated on the same day, meaning the candidates had limited time and money to spend in such a large state with so many targets at the same time.
Better than voting two months after the nominations are decided, but nowhere near a return to the days of yore. Moving the primary up by several months only to get lost in the shuffle makes it hard to justify the expense of holding a separate election. When California votes in June, the presidential primary happens concurrently with down ballot contests. You can’t easily have those other elections in February or March. It’s too early in the process/cycle for a House race. States who vote earlier generally have two separate primary elections.
This year, New York wound up being at least somewhat influential on the Democratic and Republican side with a mid-April date. At that state, the nomination is sometimes decided, but definitely not always. It provided a bit of a template for what California could look like. With the exception of the Wyoming caucus (Dems only), no other events were held between Wisconsin on April 5 and New York on the 19th.
That gave candidates a full two weeks to concentrate on a major state. Hillary Clinton used her time wisely, spending several days barnstorming through the place she represented in the Senate and driving the final nail into Bernie’s delegate math coffin. Donald Trump’s opponents were unable to make a dent in his home state, and his huge win was a precursor for what followed in the next couple weeks as he swept to the nomination.
It’s hard to imagine anything or anyone displacing Iowa, New Hampshire, and even South Carolina at the beginning of the calendar. While you can make a strong case the first two are unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, they serve an important winnowing role. A state like California is simply too expensive for an underdog candidate with no national presence to compete in.
Iowa and New Hampshire afford opportunities for more modestly funded candidates to break through. Even South Carolina is a far more economical place to get started than a Florida or Ohio. Trying to reform the primary system that has developed over the past several decades is a difficult chore. Picking a fight with the earliest voting states isn’t worth the trouble and the economics and installed base of activists and participants is another argument for continuing forward with the traditional beginning.
But there’s plenty of room to shuffle where the candidates go from there. Once Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have narrowed the field to 2 to 5 candidates per contested nomination, it becomes far more plausible to have a large state enter the fun. Because the process is already more than long enough, keeping Super Tuesdays, where several states participate at the same time is necessary.
Texas participates in the traditional Southern Super Tuesday, which is the first of the big voting days. While it’s great for them to vote relatively early, the state winds up getting minimized due to all that happens on the same day. Like California, it gets overshadowed when part of a larger grouping, as it only counts as one win in the eyes of the media (and donors), but is far more costly to contest than an Alabama or Oklahoma.
If it was possible to get university presidents and TV networks to settle on the BCS playoff system for college football, it’s possible to work out a multi-cycle arrangement for primary elections. Not easy, but possible. If the various states start negotiating soon, by the time the 2020 dates are locked in by mid-2019, they might get somewhere.
It’s one of the few times Republicans and Democrats are united at the state level. Everybody, regardless of party, wants their state to matter as often as possible. A competitive, contested primary or caucus forces candidates to seek local favor. It’s extra ad revenue for local media, more work for local consultants, a chance for state politicos to get wined and dined.
Ideally, the remainder of the schedule would be a combination of individual primaries, often in large states, and Super Tuesday-like election days with several states participating in a regional contest. Having small states on opposite ends of the country vote on the same day isn’t real efficient for the candidates and increases the odds one or more won’t choose to contest a given state.
If you figure most of the states should vote in a 12 to 14 week stretch after Iowa/New Hampshire/South Carolina, with everyone being done by early June, you can have several regional primary days, interspersed with the individual states. California, New York, Florida, and Texas could rotate, with each being first up every four cycles. Perhaps a Midwestern state works it’s way into the rotation, but with Iowa leading off, the region is represented early.
That would allow Californians to weigh in, unobstructed, every 4th cycle in March. The remaining 3 rounds would include it with several Western states in a regional primary. One of those rounds would allow the Western group to vote sooner than later as well, so at least half the time, the Golden State primary would have some value. The same situation would apply for Texas, Florida, and New York as well.
There’s no perfect way to pick a president. The primary/caucus system has benefits and drawbacks. You can argue each state should have a primary, or that primaries and caucuses should always be open, or closed, or just open to members of the party and non-affiliated voters. I lean in the direction of thinking individual states should determine their own eligibility rules, with the parties being able to create rules to influence those decisions.
The calendar itself is another story and worthy of some additional coordination. California got a little taste of relevance this past couple weeks. A reformed nomination calendar could keep this from being a fluke. The electoral college already means several large states get very little attention during the fall campaign. At least this would allow them to participate more fully and frequently in choosing the candidates who spend their fall elsewhere.