The Riggs Report: Can California’s presidential vote matter?
September 28, 2017
State primary will be moved up three months for 2020 elections
It was a memorable quote, offered up by Gov. Jerry Brown in response to a question I posed about lingering presidential ambitions at a 2010 campaign debate at UC Davis.
“Hell, if I was younger, you know I’d be running again,” Brown said, acknowledging his three previous runs for the White House in 1976, 1980 and 1992.
Instead, he went on to claim a unique spot in California political history by winning another term as governor, 28 years after he last occupied the corner office at the Capitol. His reelection to a fourth term in 2014 made him the longest-tenured California governor ever.
At 79, Brown’s Potomac fever is in remission. But even though he’ll no longer be a candidate, Brown made a decision this week that will potentially have a significant impact on the next presidential campaign in 2020.
Among the 28 bills the governor signed Wednesday was Senate Bill 568, which alters California’s election calendar by moving the state’s primary from June to March.
The bill, authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, reflects frustration at California’s lack of influence in determining the outcome of past presidential contests.
The last Republican primary that mattered here was in 1976, when former Gov. Ronald Reagan beat Gerald Ford. The last Democratic primary to have significance was in 1972, when George McGovern bested Hubert Humphrey.
“Moving California’s presidential primary to March from June means candidates in both parties can’t treat immigration, climate change, criminal justice reform and investing in jobs and innovation like afterthoughts, as they did too often in 2016,” Lara said, in a statement earlier this month when the bill was approved by the State Assembly.
The idea is to force candidates to actually spend campaign time in California, talking to voters, instead of simply flying in to raise campaign cash to spend in other states.
But whether that would actually happen is far from certain.
California is an extremely expensive and difficult state to campaign in, given its size. Campaign advisers know that their dollars go much further in small but influential early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
California has also tried shuffling the calendar before, with little to show for it.
In 1996, the primary was moved to late March. In 2000, and again in 2004, the vote was scheduled in early March. And California doubled down in 2008, moving the primary to February.
It didn’t seem to matter a great deal, as other states moved their elections up as well to front-load the calendar. In fact, in 2008, when California held its vote on the same day as 23 other states, it greatly diluted the state’s impact.
There are other drawbacks with an earlier primary.
It extends an advantage to candidates who have the most money to spend in California’s media markets, and it greatly extends the length and expense of the campaign season for all candidates at the state and local level.
Political consultants and television stations will experience a great windfall, but voters will face an extra three months of campaign outreach.
Brown will be retired from the governorship by the time of the 2020 presidential contest, but one of his legacies will be another experiment aimed at giving California the political clout that has eluded the state for so many years.