Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What if California held its presidential primary today?

SACRAMENTO — What if California had kept its presidential primary on its traditional date: the first Tuesday in June?

The nation's eyes, observers say, would have been riveted to the state today — giving California the attention and clout political leaders said they wanted when they moved up the primary to Feb. 5.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York may have been looking to deliver a major blow to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's chances of capturing the Democratic nomination, solidifying her argument that big-state wins put her in a better position to win in November's general election.

Or Obama could have been hoping to clinch the nomination outright, given recent polls showing him having overtaken Clinton's once-wide margin in California — providing some much-needed momentum going into the fall campaign.

Either way, it could have been a decisive day.

Alas, California's impact on the primary season was barely a blip, only one in a flurry of long-forgotten Super Tuesday votes in the middle of winter.

"Instead of being in that traffic jam of Feb. 5, California voters would have had a major league shoot-out that would have gone on for several weeks," said Bill Carrick, longtime Democratic political strategist and veteran of numerous presidential campaigns. "It would have been a big deal. More eyes, more attention, organizing, advertising, candidate visits. It would have been the tipping point of the Advertisementcampaign."

As it is, with the presidential primary a distant memory, observers say today's election is not likely to produce more than a 30 percent turnout. Aside from a few ballot measures and a handful of competitive candidate races that might exercise some voters, most Californians will sit this one out.

"With the absence of statewide candidate races, you can almost bet it's going to be a very low turnout," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. If the presidential primary were today, "it would have been interesting. Clinton could have been storming to the finish line. And turnout would have been great."

Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, who shepherded the Feb. 5 primary date, has stoutly defended the move, saying that the state became relevant in primary politics for the first time in a generation and that voters came out in record numbers.

If California had not been scheduled early, Clinton's demise would have come earlier, said Steve Maviglio, Nunez's former deputy chief of staff.

The "June date would have made California irrelevant," he wrote in an op-ed piece, "because the race would have been long over."

A California primary in June, Maviglio added, would have forced both candidates to squander significant resources at a time when they needed to prepare for the general election.

Critics say that the Feb. 5 primary date was all about creating an election to put a term limits measure before voters — to extend term-limited lawmakers' time in office and allow them to run in today's primary elections. The measure failed, the state could be on the hook for $90 million for the extra election, and the lawmakers were kept off today's ballots.

"All they cared about was term limits," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican strategist who co-edits the California Target Book. "The presidential race was not decisive in California, and term limits was not extended. As a result, we'll have an election today that will cost huge money and nobody will come out to vote."

The effect of California's Feb. 5 primary election went beyond state boundaries.

If California had not moved up its election, other big states, such as Michigan and Florida, may have also held back their election dates — and Democrats could have avoided the painful battles over what to do with those states' delegates. If Clinton had won those battles outright, the complexion of this race likely would have been vastly different.

The law of unintended consequences "bites you every time," Carrick said. "You don't know what you're getting into when you start tinkering with California's primary."

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