California wants to be first — no, not first, but up near the first — in line to vote in the 2020 presidential primaries.
Or at least some Californians do, Democratic members of the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature who have passed a law in the state Senate and are giving it serious consideration in the Assembly. Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, has endorsed the bill. It would set California's presidential (and state) primary for the third Tuesday in March and would give the governor authority to change the date so that California votes right after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
As you surely know, the framers of the Constitution put in a provision stating that Iowa and New Hampshire must vote first (just kidding).
This is not the first time that California has done something like this. Historically, California voted on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June and was the last, or just about the last, state to vote in presidential primaries. This could give California lots of leverage: Barry Goldwater's 52 to 48 percent victory over Nelson Rockefeller in 1964 and George McGovern's 44 to 39 percent victory over Hubert Humphrey gave those two California winners the 1964 Republican and 1972 Democratic nominations.
But starting in 1976, nominations tended to get sewed up well before California voted. So for the 1996 primaries, California started voting in March, in the fourth week in 1996. That was too late to be dispositive, and so it moved to the first week in March in 2000 (too late for the Democratic race that year, which was over after Iowa and New Hampshire) and 2004 (too late for both races).
For 2008, it moved earlier still, to the first week of February, as one of 15 states voting on Super Tuesday; only Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire and Florida voted earlier, and Democrats docked Michigan and Florida half their delegates for voting before party rules allowed. For once, California actually counted. Not that it decided the Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama there 51 to 43 percent, but lost enough delegates in February that she ultimately lost the nomination.
Among Republicans, John McCain beat Mitt Romney by only 42 to 35 percent, but McCain carried 42 of the 53 congressional districts and, under allocation rules in which most delegates were awarded winner-take-all by congressional district, amassed a large enough delegate lead in California and elsewhere that Romney left the race two days later.
But Democrats, in firm control of state government, didn't care much about Republican contests, and they anticipated, correctly, that Barack Obama would face no challenge for re-nomination in 2012, and so they switched the 2016 primary back to June, so the state could save money by holding the presidential and statewide primaries on the same day, as in yore. You might have noticed, if you are a political junkie, that Donald Trump won the California primary with 75 percent of the vote. Candidates who had withdrawn a month before split the rest.
Among the Democrats, Bernie Sanders was still running against Hillary Clinton, but it was plain that however California voted Clinton would have enough delegates to win the nomination; the networks didn't bother to pay for an exit poll. In the event, she won by an uninspiring 53 to 46 percent margin. A quick glance at the results suggests she won by large margins among Hispanics (she got 65 percent in heavily Hispanic Imperial County) and topped 60 percent in the heavily Hispanic 36th congressional district and also carried California's small black population; which is to say, Bernie Sanders probably got a few more votes from white Democrats than she did.
What will it mean for Democrats if California votes right after Iowa and New Hampshire? For one thing, it will require Democratic candidates, who constantly inveigh against the evils of money in politics, to raise very large amounts of money up front.
That's probably the only way they'll be able to get their messages across to California's 5 million-plus Democratic voters. Trying to organize the state precinct by precinct sounds impossible. Another likelihood is that California's public employee unions will become the kingmakers. This will help Democrats if you think they need a candidate who backs hugely higher government spending; not so much if you don't.
To appeal to Hispanic voters, Democratic candidates will have an incentive to get very close to an open borders and amnesty immigration policy, which may not help in other states. As for appealing to white non-college voters, the group which arguably defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, California won't be much help; there aren't very many of them in the state. High taxes and high housing costs have driven hundreds of thousands of non-affluent whites to leave California.
As for Republicans, the expectation right now is that Donald Trump will probably be, as the three previous presidents were, unopposed for re-nomination.
California Democrats argue that California, with its huge size, should have more clout in determining the Democratic nomination. That's a reasonable enough assertion. But you can't argue, these days, that California is typical of the nation demographically or politically, as it was from the 1940s to the 1990s.
California's electorate, according to fivethirtyeight.com, is 26 percent non-college white, compared to 42 percent nationally. California is 6 percent black, compared to 13 percent nationally. California is 24 percent Hispanic compared to 13 percent nationally. California is 14 percent Asian compared to 5 percent nationally.
You get the idea. The only group which is similar-size in this state and the nation is college-educated whites: 29 percent of California, 31 percent of the nation. But evidence suggests—take a look at those San Francisco Bay Area election returns—that California's college-educated whites are much more left-wing than the rest of the nation's.
And so is California, of course. As I wrote in a December 2016 Washington Examiner column, is that for the first time in the nation's history our largest state has voted at one end of the political spectrum. California has become a political outlier. New York, the largest state in censuses from 1820 to 1960, almost always voted within 5 percent of the national average in those years. So did California from the time it became the largest state in 1963 up through 1996. But it voted 6 points more Democratic than the nation in 2000 and 2004, 9 points more in 2008, 10 points more in 2012 and a whopping 14 points more Democratic than the nation in 2016. Only one state, Hawaii, voted more Democratic, and by only 1 point.
My advice to the Democrats, unsolicited and probably unwanted, is: don't let California do this. You don't need California to win a presidential election; you've already got it in the bag. And things peculiar to California aren't going to help you much elsewhere. Plus, the huge expense of campaigning in California is going to stifle competition and hurt long-shot candidates who might do better than you think if you give them a chance (like, say, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama). If you want to feature early contests in states that might help you win in November, I have a list: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida.