The Case Against the February California Primary

by Paul Hogarth on January 31, 2007

As Ben Franklin said, the definition of “insanity” is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Once again, California politicians complain that our state never gets to choose a presidential nominee because the race is over by the time it gets here. Now the state legislature wants to push up our presidential primary even earlier than before – in the vain hope that we will decide from a wide-open field in 2008. But other states have the same idea too and we may end up having a national primary on February 5th – only one week after New Hampshire. While a February primary could be seen as a boon for progressive activists, the subsequent low-turnout June election poses grave risks, particularly given the attempt to qualify a statewide initiative to ban rent control.

The February primary is a bad idea for many reasons, and California should not fuel the madness. First, it is unlikely that California will get to decide the outcome of the presidential race, even with an earlier primary. Second, a front-loaded schedule puts insurgent candidates at an insurmountable disadvantage, virtually guaranteeing that the establishment candidate (i.e., Hillary Clinton) will win. Third, pushing the whole primary schedule further back forces candidates to campaign even earlier and raise even more money. Fourth, having two California primaries (the presidential one in February and the legislative one in June) will help right-wing propositions sail through in a low-turnout election.

It’s unfair that Iowa and New Hampshire — two rural, predominantly white states — have an unreasonable say in picking presidential nominees and that California repeatedly gets left out. But 47 other states feel the same way, and we’re not the only ones who want to move up our primary to “maximize” influence. If California moves its primary to February 5th, it will join Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina, Delaware, Missouri, New Jersey – and probably Florida and Michigan as well. To say that we will somehow have comparable influence in selecting the nominee as Iowa or New Hampshire is absurd, because candidates will have to split their time between here and eight states (some on the East Coast) within the short span of one week.

California has repeatedly pushed up its primary in the past – and it still didn’t maximize our influence. In 1996, the state legislature moved it from June to March 26th – but with Bob Dole having beaten back Pat Buchanan’s challenge a few weeks earlier, the race was effectively over by then. So in 2000, the legislature pushed it back to March 7th – putting California on the same day as Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont. The result? Al Gore already had the Democratic nomination in the bag, and George Bush finished off John McCain with an avalanche of campaign spending. In 2004, we saw the same result happen again.

The effect of moving California’s primary is that it so front-loads the schedule that under-funded insurgent candidates have no chance of winning, and the establishment candidate quickly gets the nomination. In 2000, John McCain upset George Bush in New Hampshire, only to get overwhelmed within a month in other states. In 2004, John Kerry’s early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire allowed him to solidify his establishment status, and he went on to win the nomination without much trouble.

The problem isn’t that Iowa and New Hampshire go first – it’s that so many states follow them right afterwards. If an insurgent wins one of the early states, they simply get overwhelmed later due to lack of resources. If an establishment type wins an early state, the insurgents have no chance later on because it gives the front-runner an insurmountable lead. Either way, the establishment candidate always wins.

In 2004, Howard Dean pursued the only strategy that an insurgent candidate could be expected to do. Because Iowa and New Hampshire were immediately followed by a series of front-loaded primaries, he spent resources ahead of time in Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma — which had primaries one week later. It could have worked, if Dean had won Iowa. But with his third-place finish in the Hawkeye State and his infamous “scream,” Howard Dean had no money, no time and no momentum left to score a comeback and win the nomination.

A front-loaded primary season effectively ends the nomination process in early February. It’s insane that in January 2007 we already have so many declared presidential candidates, but they’re just facing reality – the nomination will be over in a year. That doesn’t give much time to raise gobs of money to spend it at lightning speed when the front-loaded primaries start hitting next January. No campaign manager would tell a candidate not to declare right away.

It didn’t use to be that way. In 1992, the primary schedule was more drawn out and allowed more states to have a say in the Democratic nomination. After Tom Harkin won the Iowa caucus on February 10th, Paul Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary on February 18th. Bob Kerrey won South Dakota on February 25th and Jerry Brown won Colorado on March 3rd. Bill Clinton started racking up victories in the coming weeks, but on March 24th Brown stalled his momentum by winning Connecticut. Finally, Clinton sewed up the nomination on April 7th with the New York primary.

Of course, California didn’t have a say in 1992 because its primary was in June. But a two-month marathon – rather than a one-week sprint –allows for a more dynamic process where more states can have their vote really matter. A longer nomination process allows candidates to hone their skills and get battle-tested. It would also generate more interest and excitement among voters.

But why does New Hampshire always get to be first? New Hampshire law requires that its presidential primary be first-in-the-nation. As other states try to get an early seat in the action, New Hampshire has pushed its primary further and further back — from March 12th in 1968 to February 1st in 2000 to January 27th in 2004. That’s not healthy for anyone because it forces campaigns to start earlier.

I think it’s better to have a state like New Hampshire go first. New Hampshire is small enough that a presidential candidate can run a grass-roots campaign and talk to voters – rather than raise tons of money and throw it on commercials. New Hampshire allows insurgent candidates to get their foot in the door and expand the scope of debate. The problem is that they later get clobbered when the nomination shifts to a media war of mega-state after front-loaded mega-state.

So what’s the solution? The national parties should sit down with their state parties and forge a compromise. They probably can’t do anything about Iowa and New Hampshire – but they can prevent the leap-frogging and front-loading that happens every time. Establish a firm schedule stretching out over several months, so that each week you only have one or two state primaries.

This will allow each state to have a real voice in the nomination process. States that are unfortunately placed last will get a higher placement four years later, and states like California that have always been shut out would get a priority placement. It won’t be perfect, but it will be better than what we have now.

Furthermore, California progressives should be alarmed at how a presidential primary in February could have a derivative effect on state politics. Speaker Fabian Nunez wants to place a proposition in February to relax the state’s term-limits law (a good idea), followed by a legislative primary in June. But this will pose the danger of a low voter turnout in June, giving the right-wing an opening to pass dangerous propositions.

Already, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is gathering signatures to place a “son” of Proposition 90 on the ballot – probably for June 2008. While its language makes it sound less extreme than Prop 90, it is actually worse because of its retroactive effect and would eliminate rent control in California. The religious right will also try to place an anti-gay marriage amendment on the ballot – it would also likely be voted on in June 2008.

California’s a very blue state – but past elections have shown that a low turnout can pass right-wing propositions. In March 2000, California had a low statewide turnout — the average voter’s age was fifty – and the state passed a legislative ban on gay marriage (Proposition 22) and a drastic juvenile justice initiative (Proposition 21) by healthy margins.

The same thing could happen again – if the state legislature foolishly pushes the presidential primary up to February, in the virtually nonexistent hope that California will better influence the next presidential nominee.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Hogarth actively supported Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004. Send feedback to

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