Edwards Could Benefit Most from California February Primary

by Randy Shaw on January 23, 2007

As each week seems to bring a new stream of presidential candidate announcements, a deal is brewing in Sacramento that could greatly impact the race. The deal would move California’s presidential primary to February, when the state’s residents are so unaccustomed to voting that it will place a premium on the candidate with the best voter mobilization and outreach machine. Organized labor is the name of the game in California’s Democratic primaries, and many unions, and SEIU and UNITEHERE in particular, are closely aligned with John Edwards. Edwards could be the chief beneficiary of an earlier date, though so many other states are moving up their primaries that California’s February contest could still come too late to impact the outcome.

Despite being the nation’s most populous Democratic state, California’s June primary has ensured its irrelevance in choosing the Party’s presidential nominee. The 1996 primary was moved to late March to address this, and then to early March in 2000, but in both cases other states also moved up their primary dates so California’s shift did not increase the state’s clout.

Under a deal now under discussion, February 2008 would include a presidential primary, an initiative to take redistricting out of the Legislature’s control, and an initiative revising term limits for state legislators whose chief impact would be to allow Assemblymembers to remain in office for fourteen, rather than six, years. Voters would have to approve both the redistricting and term-limit measures.

While Governor Schwarzenegger claims to support the deal out of a desire to change redistricting, he really wants the national media spotlight that a February California primary would bring. Democratic Assembly members are on board because they badly want term limits modified, and this would enable Speaker Fabian Nunez to stay in office past 2008.

Whereas the shift to March primaries failed to increase California’s clout, a planned February 2008 primary could be different. This would mean that California would only follow Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. If it occurred on the Super Tuesday of February 5, would give California a much bigger say in the selection of a nominee.

On the other hand, past experience shows that these first four primaries are likely to either end the race or significantly winnow the field. In 2004, it was down to John Kerry and Edwards after New Hampshire, with so much money and support rushing to Kerry that the latter faced almost insurmountable hurdles to stay competitive.

If California joined Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina, Delaware, Missouri and New Jersey on February 5, that would become akin to a national primary. The great advantage of this is that none of the four January states have many Latino voters, while this key Democratic constituency will have a major voice if California joins those holding primaries on February 5.

In fact, a strong argument can be made that California should move its primary to February 5 for this reason alone, as excluding Latino voters from selecting the Democratic Presidential nominee would be a major mistake.

Another factor favoring the February 5 date is that Florida and Michigan are considering moving their presidential primaries to that date. If this were to occur, California politicians would feel pretty foolish having kept a June date that will entirely disenfranchise the state’s Democrats from choosing the Party’s nominee.

Given all the reasons for the February 5 primary to happen, California would immediately become the big player that day. The issue would then be whether organized labor would rev up its vaunted voter outreach machine for the February primary, knowing it would also need voter turnout for the regular state legislative primaries in June, and the November general election.

Labor cannot run three full-throttle grassroots outreach campaigns in the space of ten months. Clearly, November 2008 is labor’s top priority. Two conflicting factors come into play regarding labor’s preference between February and June.

First, labor’s close political allies in the legislature may not want unions to shift resources away from the legislative primaries in June. This could lead labor to limit its investment in the presidential primary, though much would depend on how many primary races in June are seen as important.

Second, labor is a leading force in the national Democratic Party and a California primary gives unions the chance to show their strength. It is hard to believe labor will not provide John Edwards with some semblance of a strong statewide field campaign in a February primary.

Edwards could well be heading into California having won both South Carolina and Nevada. Nevada is a stronghold for UNITEHERE, a union whose deep relationship with
Edwards will provide the troops on the ground he needs to win.

Under the current primary schedule, January could well have proved the high-point for Edwards’ campaign. Now he has a chance for a big win in the nation’s largest Democratic state, which could keep him in the race until the end.

Labor’s importance is magnified in a February primary because it is hard to believe that there will be a large voter turnout. Independents (officially registered as “decline to state”) and Greens cannot vote in the Democratic presidential primary. Obama and Clinton are high-profile names who will attract voters, but neither is likely to have the resources to create a statewide grassroots GOTV machine for California’s primary.

For those wondering why so many candidates are announcing so early, and why states are clamoring to move up their primary dates, the answer is obvious: activists want to be rid of George W. Bush. The sooner the campaign to replace him begins, the quicker he can be consigned to the dustbin of history.

After six years in office, Bush has finally become a Uniter, not a Divider. He has unified Democrats and Republicans against the war in Iraq, and, based on Republican support for Nancy Pelosi’s 100-day agenda, brought the parties together on some key domestic issues as well.

But this is one accomplishment not likely to be mentioned by Bush in tonight’s State of the Union speech.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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