Back in 1948, when most Americans woke up the day after the presidential election and learned to their surprise that Harry Truman had defeated Thomas Dewey, California counted. It was only because of this state’s late-reporting vote that Truman won out.
But there was no suspense about California’s vote this month: the television networks called the state for Democrat Barack Obama the moment the polls closed.
In 1948, Truman whistle-stopped the state, speaking from the rear balcony of his campaign train in big cities and small towns like Madera, Turlock and Tulare. People saw their president in the flesh, something only a few wealthy Californians could do this year.
The outcome here was so certain this time — as it has been since 1992 — that neither Obama nor Republican Mitt Romney nor either of their vice presidential running mates held even one campaign rally in the Golden State. They came here only when their cash supplies began running short, essentially to recharge their wallets from the nation’s leading political ATM.
For votes, they went to the “swing states,” with more than two-thirds of the last month’s candidate campaign appearances confined to just three states: Ohio, Florida and Virginia. There were occasional forays to exotic locales like Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada and Michigan, but not even many of those.
As for states like Texas, California and New York — three of the nation’s four largest — forget about it. That’s because the outcomes in those states are foregone conclusions these days, so certain that candidates don’t even bother to advertise here.
California’s place in the Democratic column grew even more solid during this year, as the state’s Democrats registered several hundred thousand more voters during the fall than Republicans, who talked a lot about outreach, but did very little actual reaching. The state GOP sank below 30 percent of all registered voters for the first time ever, while Democrats moved up to about 44 percent, with most of the rest declaring no party preference.
It’s not that California votes mean little; it’s just that the preponderance go Democratic and everyone knows it in advance. So how to give California voters as much clout as folks in Ohio, who are pestered non-stop during election season, both in person and electronically?
It’s plain how to make the California presidential primary more important: Move it into early February, like it was four years ago when this state went pretty big for Hillary Clinton and almost deprived Obama of the Democratic nomination. By scheduling the most recent primary in June, state legislators almost completely deprived it of meaning.
The solution for the November general election, when there’s just one Election Day across the nation, is not so obvious, but California already has made a move in the right direction.
That came with little public attention in August 2011, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bipartisan bill placing this state in the forefront of the National Popular Vote movement, the measure sponsored by the then-chairmen of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the state Assembly.
If it ever becomes effective, this plan would lessen the emphasis on the Electoral College that causes candidates to concentrate their efforts on just a few swing states. It also would prevent situations like the George W. Bush vs. Albert Gore outcome of 2000, when Gore won half a million more votes nationally, only to lose the presidency in the Electoral College.
The idea is for states to pledge all their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. The plan was adopted by the Legislature in both 2009 and 2010, but vetoed twice by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It commits California to vote with the national popular majority, but not until states with a total of 270 electoral votes agree to it.
So far, with places like Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington state and Maryland aboard, the plan is halfway to its threshold level. So far, all nine states signed on are “blue” — they went Democratic in this month’s vote. Like California, none of the others got much attention from presidential candidates.
This plan would make an extra vote in heavily Democratic San Francisco or Los Angeles or heavily Republican Madera or Orange counties count as much as one in Kent, Ohio, which is not the case today. It would force candidates to campaign everywhere, something presidential aspirants did as recently as 1970, when Republican Richard Nixon visited 49 states and Democratic rival George McGovern went to 48.
Schwarzenegger claimed this plan might deprive Californians of the clout their sheer numbers should command. He was wrong about that, as he was about many other things.
For Californians have no presidential clout these days because they are preponderantly loyal to one party. Ironically, that also renders the other party’s votes almost meaningless.
Put all voters everywhere on an equal basis, and candidates would have to spend time in the most populous places rather than merely chase electoral votes. That can only be good for California and almost all other parts of America.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at [email protected]