Making California's primary matter -- it takes more than luck
Will the Golden State matter to Republicans after all? This morning, after Rick Santorum's strong Super Tuesday showing, and Newt Gingrich's win in Georgia and his vow to press on through the Texas primary in May and the California vote on June 5, it's possible that this state may finally enjoy the clout it deserves.
Except -- don't hold your breath. Mitt Romney may not have sealed the deal, but he is inching closer. By the time it's our turn to vote three months from now, chances are we'll still just be going through the motions. The candidates love us for our money, but they spend it in states with earlier primaries. June may be just too late.
That makes California a poster child of sorts for the issue that troubles so many citizens about U.S. politics: Even in the states where candidates have spent so much money to reach the hearts, minds and voting fingers of the people, the basic unit of electoral choice often appears to have become the dollar instead of the vote. How much more true does that seem, then, in California, where so much of the money is raised but where primary voters are likely to weigh in after the race is effectively over?
It wasn't like that four years ago -- for the Democrats. California moved its traditional June primary to February, which the parties decided would be a new, early Super Tuesday. Voters here mattered. Democrats went for Hillary Rodham Clinton; Republicans picked John McCain. Clinton didn't end up with the nomination, but California voters had a voice.
But the 2008 primary was an anomalous election year precisely because Democrats are in charge here. They moved up the election not so much because they wanted their constituents to be able to make a difference but because several top Democratic incumbents in the Legislature were about to be termed out. They hoped that while nominating a presidential candidate in February, voters would also approve a measure loosening term limits -- allowing those same incumbents to run for another term in the second primary election in June. The ploy failed, but both parties (especially the Democrats, because they are the majority here) too readily make elections their playthings.
We were on course to have another February primary this year, but Gov. Jerry Brown -- a Democrat -- signed a bill sent to him by Sacramento's Democrats to move the election back to June, on the same day as the legislative primary, ostensibly to save money. So Republican voters here may lose out on their king-making power.
Isn't there a middle way? California does not have to go through another expensive double primary to be heard at the ballot box. Nor do we have to try to have the first-in-the-nation vote, jumping ahead of Iowa, New Hampshire and the rest. There's no reason that California couldn't combine its legislative primary and its presidential primary on Super Tuesday in 2016 -- giving Republicans and Democrats a chance to name their nominee. If Californians without big checkbooks don't like sitting on the sidelines until the game is virtually over, they should say so, loudly and clearly, to their parties.
Photo: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves after speaking to supporters on a campaign stop in Los Angeles on July 20, 2011. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images