The February 5 presidential primary: California gets in the game

One Democratic presidential candidate will win California on February 5, 2008 and receive an early Valentine’s Day gift.

From WWII through 1994, California held its primaries in June. The last three presidential primaries (1996, 2000 and 2004) were held in March.

Interestingly, the highest primary turnout in California history was on June 8, 1976 – with a battle between Jimmy Carter & Jerry Brown (Brown won), and Gerald Ford & Ronald Reagan (Reagan won). However, in the 1976 General Election, while Carter won the presidency, it was Ford who won California.

Since 1980, the highest primary turnout was in March 2000 with 53.9 percent turnout, which had Bill Bradley vs. Al Gore (Gore won), and McCain vs. Bush Jr. (Bush won).

P.T. Barnum used to say, “If you want to build a crowd, start a fight.” I think we’ll see some good fights within both parties early next year, so we could see a turnout of over 50 percent in California.

General elections, of course, have much higher turnouts. Case in point, the 1992 three-way battle between Bush Sr., Ross Perot and Bill Clinton had a turnout of 75.3 percent; but in 1996, Bob Dole against President Clinton, the turnout in California was only 65.5 percent–a drop of about 1.1 million voters.
How did California end up with a February primary–the earliest one in our history? Blame our nation’s irrational primary/caucus system.

New Hampshire was smart when it started holding the nation’s earliest primary in 1920, with it really taking off in 1952. Most states didn’t pay attention and many didn’t even hold primaries (in 1968 only 17 did). Then in 1972, Iowa saw an opportunity to hold the nation’s first caucus–eight days before New Hampshire. In 1976, Jimmy Carter recognized the potential of early campaigning, working and winning both Iowa and New Hampshire which got him to the White House.

For a long time those two states started the presidential process in March, and California, New Jersey and others ended it in June. The states with later primaries and caucuses felt left out of the process and started moving their dates earlier and earlier which then had Iowa and New Hampshire doing the same.
The result–Iowa’s Caucus is now set for January 14, Nevada’s will be January 19, followed by New Hampshire on January 22. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) allowed South Carolina to move its primary to January 29, but ruled no other states could go before February 5, 2008, and if any did, those states will be penalized by losing delegates.

Despite that, Florida moved its primary to January 29 and now other states are talking about doing the same, and I believe some states will. My other prediction: by late this year, New Hampshire will move its primary before the Nevada Caucuses, and then Iowa will move earlier.

Could one of these states end up holding a presidential caucus or primary in December 2007? Absolutely.

Meanwhile, California and 15 other states are parked in the February 5th lane, and California will remain on that date. New Hampshire allows its Secretary of State to pick the primary date with little notice. California, like most other states, requires its state Legislature to act. In caucus states like Michigan and Nevada, it’s up to the state party to pick the date, but even then, it’s almost impossible to change dates within the last 60 days of the year.
Regardless of the final schedule, if Florida does hold its primary on January 29, the candidate from each party who wins in Florida will get a big boost for the February 5 “Mega-Primary.”

In politics, size does matter, which is why Democratic candidates for President are making numerous trips to California. If our primary were still in June, both fundraising and candidate appearances would go down – Democratic donors know California will decide this race both in the primary and in the General, with our 55 Electoral votes (20 percent of the 270 needed).

Remember–the last Republican to win a presidential or U.S. Senate race in California was in 1988–19 years ago.

Given California’s size and its 440 delegates (compared to New Hampshire’s 30) to the Democratic National Convention, I predict the Democrat who wins California–a sweet Valentine’s Day present–will be our nominee, and our next President.

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