Tuesday, January 6, 2015

California: Damned if you do, Damned of you don't [Move] in Presidential Primary Politics

Mark Barabak of the LA Times had a nice ring in the new year presidential election style piece last week, written from the outside looking in perspective in which Californians typically have to view the presidential nomination process. He nicely captured the dilemma that faces California decision makers when it comes to the question of moving the Golden state primary:
"For years, California tried to boost its clout by pushing its primary earlier in the nominating process. That, in turn, prompted other states to advance their elections, resulting in Iowa kicking off the last two presidential campaigns with caucuses held just three days into the New Year."
There is more to it, but this pinpoints the unique mathematical position California represents in the presidential nomination process. Lawmakers in the Golden state were not alone in the decades after the passage of the McGovern-Fraser reforms transformed the manner in which Americans nominate the candidates who will vie for the White House in the general election. Frontloading, after all, did not start with California. However, California did significantly alter the frontloading phenomenon when the state moved its presidential primary into late March (from June) for the 1996 cycle.

That move changed the thinking in other states. That move meant that all of those California delegates (in both parties processes) were not an anchor at the very end of the primary calendar, shifting the point at which a candidate could or would secure the nomination all the while. Before that shift by California, most states -- state governments, particularly folks in the state legislatures -- were like the national parties, always fighting the last battle. "What moves were made last time? How should we react this time? Should we react this time?" they would ask. Again, this is just like how the national parties view their quadrennial efforts at setting their delegate selection rules for the next cycle.

In 1996, that changed for states. California forced the change, forcing states to consider reacting within a cycle instead of based on the last cycle. The issue was exacerbated four years later when legislators in the Golden state moved the presidential primary there up to the first Tuesday in March, the earliest date allowed by the Democratic Party. In concert with the 1996 shift, the move ahead of the 2000 cycle pushed the presidential nomination process into the hyper-frontloaded era. That era -- 2000-2008 -- was characterized by a significant clustering of states at the point on the calendar that was earliest and compliant with national party rules. But much of it had to do with states trying to stay ahead of or even with California after it shifted that end game point of the nomination cycle to earlier and earlier points on the calendar.

But California was also a part of spreading delegate allocation out and delaying that end game in 2012 when it shifted its presidential primary back to June.1 That shifted all of those delegates back to the very end of the process again.

Will California stay there for 2016? Barabak makes a nice argument that the presidential nomination process is sufficiently nationalized to the point that Californians should be content to leave well enough alone. That said, FHQ is not so sure. California Republicans warned in 2012 that Democrats in the state legislature would move the primary forward again in 2016 when the Democratic Party had a competitive nomination race again. And if (the origin of) traffic to this site in recent weeks is any indication, FHQ would not be surprised to see a bill introduced in California to move the primary again.

1 It should be noted that California did move back to June for the 2008 cycle before it moved back up to February.

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