Friday, January 26, 2007

The California Primary

Last Saturday’s LA Times headline proclaimed, with unrestrained glee, State Aims For Feb.5 Primary To Boost Clout. Since both parties seem to want this and since the Governator wants it, it seems very likely to happen. You see, Californians have been unhappy about just being a cash machine for candidates while the other states get to actually vote. By the time the primaries roll out here, the race is over. So this will enable California, with all its diversity and issues far different from those in Iowa (ethanol and farm subsidies) and New Hampshire (God only knows), to matter. Well, this is a nice theory. Unfortunately, early voting out here could have one of two results, both bad.
One is that the candidates haven’t been winnowed out yet. If you remember 2004, the Dens were down to two candidates (Kerry and Edwards), by the first week in March. This meant that all the people who had voted for other candidates no longer had any horse in the race. In NH, 49% of the voters voted for candidates other than Kerry and Edwards. The first week of February had 6 primaries which could reasonably be described as “western”. In Arizona, 50% of the voters voted for someone other than the big two, in New Mexico, 47%, in North Dakota, 40%, in Oklahoma, 43% (Wesley Clark won that one – talk about meaningless votes), and in Washington, 44% did. So absent a radical change in candidacies, we can expect about 45% of Californians to have no meaningful say, by means of voting for a candidate who will be gone soon anyway.
That doesn’t mean that will be the actual result. No, something worse is more likely. The first primary, as all politicos will tell you, is the money primary. It has already started (Hillary Clinton is leading) and with the creation of a key early state with absolutely no retail politics, where big TV ad buys in major media markets are everything, that money primary becomes the most important one. It has been pointed out (by Joe Trippi and others) that in the age of the internet, a candidate can raise a lot of money very quickly, allowing a second-tier candidate to emerge early and compete. But if the biggest and most expensive primary is just a couple of weeks after the first ones, how can that happen? Even if you could raise the money quickly, creating ads and buying time in California would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Therefore the most likely result of the early California primary would be to eliminate a lot of serious candidates in December, before a single vote has been cast, because they realize they can’t raise enough money to compete out here. Instead of candidates being able to build momentum and engage in a series of debates, we will face a shorter field whose messages will be carefully crafted to translate into 30 second commercials, which is all campaigns are about out here.
I understand the frustration over early, smaller, states having a disproportionate say in candidate selection. The problem is not necessarily with the placement of primaries, but with the selection process itself. In order to make the Fall campaign run smoother, the parties have front-loaded the system, trying to get the candidate chosen as early as possible. The key to this is a delegate selection system which assigns delegates proportionally, based primarily on total votes in a state, with some allowance for selection by district. The second candidate in the race can win the last four or five states and gain relatively little ground, just due to the math. Even if the front-runner doesn’t get an actual majority, the pressure to get this decided before the convention leads to delegates (those pledged to the ex-candidates and super-delegates) joining up with the guy closest to a majority. There is a solution to this. Let the smaller states do the vetting and winnowing out process, then with a gap of about a month preceding them, have NY, CA, and maybe one or two other major states, have winner-take-all primaries on the first Tuesday in June. That would enable the remaining candidates to have a national debate, raise money for media buys, craft a message for the showdown, and actually give the non-frontrunner (or two) a real chance to come from behind. Choose the actual delegates (for platform and other purposes) by whatever method you want, but the nominating votes selected by the primary would be pledged to the winner for the first two ballots. Make California the biggest prize at the biggest time and then we’ll really matter.


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