Suddenly, California has gone from irrelevant, ignored and unvisited to vitally important, thoroughly analyzed and swamped with tourists dressed up like presidential candidates and their aides.
Nowhere was that more obvious than at the state Democratic Party convention early this month, a gathering that has lately seen nothing bigger than in-house fights over who would be the next state party chairman, a job with little influence over public policy.
But this year, 14 presidential candidates staged a cattle call in San Francisco. But not until they’d already campaigned everywhere from San Diego and Los Angeles to Oakland, Fresno and the Silicon Valley.
This shift can be traced solely to a date change – with a little boost along the way from California’s uniquely open elections. The change was completely predictable when state legislators two years ago switched the 2020 California primary from early June to the first Tuesday in March.
The move potentially puts California into the most influential spot it has held since George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey fought here for the 1972 Democratic nomination, crisscrossing California for weeks in an era when few other states had primaries. Back then, it was mostly party officials who decided the presidential nominations.
As more and more states created primaries and caucuses, California left its vote in early June. So presidential candidates ignored this state except when they needed to refill their money bags. Then they came here hat in hand, but engaged almost exclusively with the wealthiest Californians, with big-dollar fund-raisers in the Silicon Valley and West Los Angeles their most frequent venues.
Things are very different now. For one thing, California Democrats will not simply hold one large vote. Yes, dozens of Democratic National Convention delegates will be awarded based on the statewide tally. But there will also be 53 smaller primaries, between four and six delegates at stake in every congressional district.
Little-known and poorly-financed candidates thus can practice retail politics here, in contrast to the TV commercials, Internet and social media employed in other statewide California elections. Rural and suburban Northern California districts dominated by Republican voters can now play significant roles in Democratic politics, if candidates go there. Chances are, any Democrat spending significant time and energy in those areas can pick up more delegates than they could with a marginal performance in the Iowa caucuses.
The moved-up primary also means Californians can start voting by mail and in early-voting centers around the same time Iowans are negotiating January snowstorms en route to rowdy caucuses in high school gyms and junior high multi-purpose rooms. Knowing this, expect major TV and Internet activity to begin here around the middle of the fall football season.
The new timing will bring a sea change in Californians’ political experiences, just when the state’s switch to a mostly-mail voting system makes another type of change.
Into this brave new California world come a score of Democrats who think they’d make fine presidents. Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders has been here several times already and will be back more often as the year goes on, a big change from 2016, when he didn’t get here until after his second-place primary fate was settled.
Former Vice President Joseph Biden, who didn’t attend the state Democratic convention, will be here plenty.
California Sen. Kamala Harris figures to meet far more voters and venture into places she never went while running twice for state attorney general and once for the Senate. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who wants to break up Silicon Valley’s near monopolies like Google and Facebook and others like Amazon.com will come face to face with some of their employees, whose fate she wants to change dramatically.
Current second-tier candidates like former Texas Congressman Robert (Beto) O’Rourke and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg will get plenty of chances to move up into the first tier.
So will many others now pulling 1 percent or less in the polls.
Which means moving up the primary sees California moving on up in many ways, from gaining political clout to drawing hundreds of millions of campaign dollars. All of it can do nothing but good for this state.