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How California can spoil the '08 election ...

January 28, 2007|Philip J. Trounstine | PHILIP J. TROUNSTINE is director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State. He is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News and was communications director for former Gov. Gray Davis.

WITH SUPPORT FROM Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and leaders of both parties in the Legislature, the prospects are looking good that California will move its 2008 presidential primary from June to February.

That would put the contest for the largest bloc of delegates (about 12% or so) needed to win a party nomination at the front end of the nominating process, after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

From the standpoint of California -- which traditionally has served as little more than an ATM for campaign cash -- this would be a good thing. Why should such a big and important state weigh in at the end of the nominating process, when the races are all but settled by puny, one-dimensional states that matter not a lick in November?

Think about it:

* Iowa, which is 92% white, has a population about the size of San Diego County.

* New Hampshire -- 94% white -- is smaller than Sacramento County.

* Nevada's population is just a bit larger than that of San Bernardino County, and South Carolina's is considerably smaller than the San Francisco Bay Area's.

To run well in California, a presidential primary candidate can't get by with boutique issues and handshakes in living rooms and coffee shops. He or she must demonstrate broad appeal to party members, must not only be able to perform hand-to-hand politics but display a media presence and the ability to speak to myriad constituencies on a wide range of issues.

And because you don't exist in California politics if you're not on TV, a candidate must have the ability to raise and spend a lot of money effectively. But that's not enough. He or she has to have something to say, for without a clear and simple strategic message, no candidate can capture California.

A Democrat who wants to carry California must appeal to labor liberals in Los Angeles and Oakland, to gun-rack flag wavers in Fresno and Bakersfield, tree huggers in Marin and Ventura counties and high-tech pragmatists in San Jose and San Diego. He or she has to connect with Latinos, blacks and Asians without driving away white union members in Long Beach.

A Republican has to appeal to churchgoers in Riverside and Anaheim, business owners in Redlands and Huntington Beach, middle managers in Fullerton and Pasadena, farmers and ranchers in Modesto and Delano. He or she has to capture the pro-life, prayer-in-school crowd without alienating all those moderate suburban Little League parents.

In short, a candidate who can capture California, with all its diversity, can be competitive in his or her party in virtually all the big states -- Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio, for example. A statewide victor in California is a national, not just a regional, candidate. Win California and you're ready for prime time.

But it's increasingly looking like California will not get to exercise its political weight unilaterally. Indeed, Feb. 5, 2008, may become Super-Duper Tuesday with, perhaps, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah voting on the same day.

If Super-Duper Tuesday does occur, California would still represent the biggest bloc in what would be, in effect, a national primary. But as the law of unintended consequences is wont to do, all this may actually increase, rather than decrease, the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire (and perhaps Nevada and South Carolina), because winners in those states would have the only momentum heading into Super-Duper Tuesday. It's the slingshot effect.

According to a variety of campaign consultants, a candidate, to be viable, would need something like $100 million in the bank and a fully functional national campaign operation to make it past Super-Duper Tuesday. For the Democrats, that likely winnows the field right off the bat to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and maybe a third contender. For Republicans, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani look like the only likely contenders right now.

So the nominating process itself may screen the field, even before a single vote is cast. That's not necessarily good for the country.

Those with name recognition and early money will have a huge built-in advantage. There won't be time to test, appraise and evaluate the candidates, to see them handle the slings and arrows that we expect our presidents to be able to deflect. Under a hyper-compressed primary system, Jimmy Carter would not have had a chance to beat George C. Wallace in Florida in 1976, and Pat Buchanan might have rode with his pitchfork right out of New Hampshire and into the 1996 November election.

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