California's presidential primaries historically irrelevant


California's Republican primary hasn't made a difference in presidential politics since June 1976, when favorite son and future President Ronald Reagan beat then-President Gerald Ford.

Reagan rode the momentum of his primary victory into the GOP convention in Kansas City, Mo., but he failed to win the nomination; Ford, roughed up by the bruising campaign, went on to lose the election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

On the Democratic side, the last California primary that really mattered was in 1972, when the peace candidate, George McGovern, beat former Vice President Hubert Humphrey in a contest dominated by debate over the Vietnam War.

With his win in California, McGovern clinched the nomination, but lost to Republican President Richard Nixon, who himself was forced to resign two years later in the Watergate scandal.

Over the years, many politicians and political experts have blamed the increasingly front-loaded national political calendar for California's role as a presidential afterthought. California votes in June, and everything already is settled by then, the argument goes.

And so the Golden State experimented with holding special presidential primaries in March (1996, 2000 and 2004) and February (2008). It didn't change the dynamic.

That's because the problem of the California primary's irrelevance is more complicated, notes Tony Quinn, California legislative historian and political analyst.

"The only way the presidential primary worked for California was when youhad winner-take-all (contests) in both parties," Quinn said in a phone interview.

Under a system that was in place for decades, the victor in California won a huge trove of delegates –enough to transform a candidate into a player at the convention even if he hadn't won anywhere else. In 1972, for example, McGovern's win in California gave him 15 percent of the delegates he needed to clinch.

But in the 1970s, both parties discarded their winner-take-all primaries in California in favor of a proportional system. Under the new rules, in a close race, the winner might get only a few more delegates than the loser.

"That made it uneconomical to campaign in California," Quinn said. It costs millions to mount a statewide campaign, and "you'd end up splitting the delegates anyway," he said.

Candidates began avoiding West Coast campaigns if they could. Today, they come to California mainly to raise money.

The lengthening political calendar just compounded the issues. A generation ago, the fight for a presidential nomination didn't begin to sort itself out until spring. Now, "the way it's been all front-loaded, it gets settled well before the June primaries," Quinn said.

"California was very well positioned when the whole thing ran to June," he said.

As things stand now, only in a fluke year can California expect a contested primary election. For a time, 2012 looked like such a year, as GOP front-runner Mitt Romney seemed unable to shake Santorum.

"I thought it might happen," Quinn said, "but it finally was impossible."

In any event, it seemed unlikely that Santorum was going to make much headway once he got to California: the state's GOP electorate is much more prone to vote for a Romney, Quinn said. 

"Ordinary, middle-class suburban voters, the ones who propelled Reagan, are not at all attracted to Santorum," he said. Around the country, "he did terribly in all of the suburbs but well in rural areas."

So, in California, "Santorum might have done well in Bakersfield," Quinn said.

In 2008, writer Neil Aquino, blogging as Texas Liberal, posted a brief history of California presidential primaries – including California Gov. (and future Chief Justice) Earl Warren's favorite-son victories in two GOP primaries and novelist Upton Sinclair's quixotic campaign against Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The most famous – and dispiriting – California presidential primary was in 1968. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's dramatic victory seemingly cleared the way for him to win the Democratic presidential nomination. But after delivering a victory speech in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he was assassinated.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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