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How to make California count

Never mind who votes first, it's about who has the most votes.

December 25, 2007|Mark Halperin | Mark Halperin is editor-at-large at Time magazine and the author of "The Undecided Voter's Guide to the Next President."

CALIFORNIANS, do not despair. Yes, the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire are about to play their usual amplified role in picking the next president of the United States. This is typically seen by Golden State residents as utterly unfair, because Iowa and New Hampshire are small, not terribly diverse states that for decades have exploited their first-in-the-nation voting status to earn lavish attention from presidential candidates, the national media and even sitting presidents.

California, a giant state whose primary traditionally fell so late that much of the selection process was complete before its voters went to the polls, moved its primary to Feb. 5 in an effort to increase its influence. But conventional wisdom has deemed this effort a failure. Iowa and New Hampshire, the thinking goes on both coasts and everywhere in between, perhaps will be even more influential in 2008 than before.

But it isn't too late to stop this! The prevailing analysis is correct only if you surrender to expectations and ignore the very significant power you hold in your hands.

There is one immutable fact that Californians can use to turn things around: Nominations, at the end of the day, go to the candidates who win the most delegates, not to those who win small, early-voting states.

It's certainly true that by sending voters to the polls just after New Year's Day, Iowa and New Hampshire produce the first official votes, and the first chance reporters have to assess how months and months of campaigning have shaped the hearts and minds of the electorate.

Also, after more than a generation of being first, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary have created a treasure trove of memories for journalists and historians to fortify the tradition. (Think of Ed Muskie weeping in New Hampshire in 1972, or Bob Dole's and Pat Robertson's shocking victory over then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988 in Iowa, or Bill Clinton daringly declaring himself the Comeback Kid after coming in second in the Granite State in 1992.)

What's more, reporters put a premium on Iowa and New Hampshire because the states have developed a culture of participatory citizenry unmatched by the other 48 states. Voters show up eagerly at town hall meetings to listen to politicians, and stay from early in the morning until late at night to take part in the discussion. They ask serious and specific questions about domestic and international policy. They demand that the candidates meet with them face to face and be sized up, like livestock at the state fair. Local news media and interest groups do the same thing. And it all takes place under the watchful eye of the national press corps, which appreciates the deliberate, human-scale interaction between conscientious citizens and those men and women who would govern them.

This dynamic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The leading candidates go to Iowa and New Hampshire because they know the national media will follow them there, and because success in those two states will be covered and rewarded by the expectation-setters in the media. This in turn influences donors, activists and bloggers and, ultimately, additional voters.

The more the candidates visit and allocate resources, the more the media feel justified in magnifying the significance of those states as decisive battlegrounds in the war for the White House. Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 effectively clinched their nominations by sweeping Iowa and New Hampshire. And in most election years, the parties nominate candidates who have won at least one of the two contests and have ridden that momentum to victory over a radically winnowed-down field.

California, therefore, receives far fewer candidate visits (except for private fundraising meetings with wealthy donors and the occasional rally) and far less attention to the state's issues. More than one frustrated Californian has complained to me that surely a super-diverse state with a vast pool of delegates representing one in every seven Americans deserves more influence than two tiny states populated by rural and small-town whites. Yet presidential candidates of both parties have already spent more than 1,000 days in Iowa alone campaigning for the 2008 caucuses. It is not uncommon for contenders to visit all of the state's 99 counties as a show of respect.

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