California primary date: Would it have mattered?

California holds its primary election this Tuesday. But, wait, didn’t we do that already? Yes, and no. For what I think is the first time in state history, our presidential and legislative primaries are on separate dates. ((Such practice is typical in some other states, especially those that routinely vote earlier in the presidential nominating cycle.)) We had the presidential primary on ‘Super Tuesday’ (5 February). Legislative and many local races are 3 June.

With no US Senate race this year, and this not being an election year for statewide constitutional offices, primaries will be held only for congressional, state-legislative, and other sub-state entities. This is evidently also unprecedented.

Turnout will be low. Really low. And, of course, this being California, there are statewide ballot measures being voted on, ((Two of them, both concerning eminent domain. We can’t ever seem to have just one measure per issue. I’ll do what many voters do when they don’t understand the issues and strongly suspect some organized interest is trying to pull one over on me: Vote no on both.)) allowing a potentially unrepresentative sample of the state electorate to make public policy for all the state’s residents.

Inevitably, the separate dates and the expected low turnout for this election have led to lots of “what ifs.” That is, what if California had kept its usual June primary for presidential nominating delegates? With the Democratic race having extended throughout the whole primary season, imagine the impact California would have had!

How much impact? Less than it actually had.

The “what if” scenario–which I have heard or read numerous pundits state–rests on the assumption that there would have been frantic competition between Clinton and Obama for such a BIG PRIZE at the end. The problem with this claim is that it rests on an implicit winner-take-all logic, as well as on the notion that only the “decisive” votes count. ((The same logic by which the closer makes more money than the set-up man. The ninth inning is clearly more important, right?)) Sure, if California used winner-take-all, and no other state did, and we had this close race… Then it would be quite a prize indeed. But with the proportional allocation of delegates–the only democratic way to do it ((And, in any event, one state is not going to be allowed to deviate from the proportional rule applied elsewhere. And if most or all states used winner-take-all, the contest would have been over long ago))–a contest this late would have had much less impact than it had back in February.

When we went to vote in February, we genuinely did not know the outcome of the contest. With 370 delegates at stake, and 81 of them decided statewide, about every 1.2% of the vote for a candidate meant another statewide delegate, and local swings between the candidates also would shift some number of the district delegates between the candidates (depending on magnitude of the district and how much of a local swing).

Now the race is over, and it has been (effectively) over for some time. The pledged delegate count (after the Florida/Michigan adjustment), according to Real Clear Politics, stands at:

    Obama 1736
    Clinton 1620.

Without California, it would be

    Obama 1570
    Clinton 1416.

A deficit for Clinton of 154 rather than the actual 116.

Chances are she would have done no better in California in June that she did in February. In fact, I suspect she would lose if we were voting this week. Suppose the result of the two candidate race (55%-45%) were to be reversed–probably an unrealistically large swing relative to the real result. Obama would pick up 38 delegates at her expense. We would be at 1774 to 1582. Not exactly race-altering. Of course, if we add in the ex-oficio delegates under the assumption they would have been declaring at the same rate and same proportions even if California had not voted yet, then we probably would be looking at a clinch for Obama in California on 3 June. ((RCP shows him at 2065 as of today, and if he won 38 more in California than he actually did, he’d be 15 short. But with polls closing in South Dakota and Montana earlier on 3 June than in California, the Golden State would deliver the decisive vote. But the assumption on ‘supers’ is probably unrealistic. With the biggest state not having voted yet, it is likely that fewer of the unelected delegates would have declared by now. And if so, California still would not be decisive.)) But, again, the notion that such a scenario implies more meaningful votes for Californians than the ones they actually cast in February rests on a dubious logic. It requires the belief that it is better to give a candidate the clinching delegate in a race that is clearly all but over than it is to have voted early when almost every vote counted in affecting the balance of delegates in a race that was just developing. The latter is certainly closer to the “every vote counts” democratic ideal. It certainly made me feel my own vote was more meaningful than if I had to wait till this week to weigh in at last.

0 thoughts on “California primary date: Would it have mattered?

  1. It doesn’t really change the overall point, but I think it’s important to note that the DNC awards 10% more delegates to any state having its contest after May 1st, so California would have, in fact, been a bigger prize if it stayed in June.


  2. I agree. Personally I think it is really unfair, and unfortunate, to be a ‘late state.’ For example, from the media’s coverage you would not even know that there were still Republican primaries after McCain won the so-called ‘critical states’. What a nice feeling for the voters in those non-critical states…

    For a somewhat unrelated question — what evidence is there that a representative sample of the CA electorate has previously made public policy as represented through ballot proposals?? Forgive my ignorance on this but I’m curious what literature there is on the subject.

    PS — I’ve actually voted on these measures already thanks to my early expat ballot. I find it very frustrating as I actually feel very unintelligent after reading some of the ballot measures, especially when they try to cover multiple issues in one measure. (I am often tempted to do so, or just vote no repeatedly at least)


  3. Jessica asked: “what evidence is there that a representative sample of the CA electorate has previously made public policy as represented through ballot proposals??”

    Beats me! The only point I was making is that smaller turnout elections may be less representative of the (potential) electorate’s preferences than a larger turnout election. I was not claiming that a large turnout is fully representative of the full population of eligible (or even registered) voters.

    Ballot initiatives are an imperfect way to make public policy. But then so are all the other ways!


  4. I definitely agree that a smaller turnout is much more likely to be less representative than a larger one. I was just genuinely curious if anyone has ever studied whether or not a representative sample has ever made policy this way (as presumably this would be a goal of ballot initiatives).

    And I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels stupid after reading the pamphlet!


  5. “I suppose we should be thankful that Congress doesn’t have the full range of devices available to some state legislatures. In 1988, the California legislature, immobilised by conflicting pressures from two powerful interest groups (insurance companies and trial lawyers) placed on the November ballot four mutually inconsistent automobile insurance initiatives so complex and overlapping that the Stanford torts faculty was unable to explain either to their satisfaction, or to that of the rest of us, how even a person fairly clear of her goals should vote on them.”

    – John Hart Ely, “Another Such Victory: Constitutional Theory and Practice in a World Where Courts are No Different from Legislatures,” 77 Virginia Law Review (May 1991) 833-79 (at pp 860-61).


  6. I vividly remember those insurance measures in 1988 and all the pre-election discussions with fellow progressives about strategy–which one to vote for, which ones against, and which ones to simply abstain on.

    In fact, I was thinking about it on my way to the polls today (I love elections!). With two competing measures on eminent domain, a simpler version of the same question arose. I knew which one to vote ‘no’ on, but had some uncertainty about whether to vote ‘no’ or abstain on the other. I wound up voting ‘no’ on both, figuring I was unaware of really serious problems with the status quo. I guess that means I was a conservative–for all of the 10 seconds it took me to cast my ballot.

    There were also “elections” for each of three legislative races on my ballot–all unopposed for the party nomination (in safe districts for a different party). The local paper had an editorial today with a headline that read “without redistricting reform, primaries remain the most important contest.” Ha! Not when a candidate runs unopposed they don’t. And not that redistricting reform would help with these partisan set-aside seats.

    There were also contested state judicial races. But I don’t believe in voting for judges, so I have unilaterally disarmed. Maybe I’d vote for a candidate who boasted about how she or he protected citizens’ rights. But all we ever learn about judicial candidates is how they are so tough on crime that they are “law enforcement’s choice.” (Don’t people value separation of powers? Stupid question, I suppose.) And we also learn a fair amount about how they have wonderful families and have served as soccer coaches.

    Back to 1988: As vividly as I remember the insurance measures, I can’t for the life of me remember for whom I voted for among the presidential pre-candidates!


  7. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

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