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How All Those Other States Spoiled California's Primary Story

In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton, seen here in Los Angeles a few days before California's primary, surprised some people by defeating former (and future) California Gov. Jerry Brown. Even if Brown had won the state, though, Clinton would have had more delegates.
Kevork Djansezian
In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton, seen here in Los Angeles a few days before California's primary, surprised some people by defeating former (and future) California Gov. Jerry Brown. Even if Brown had won the state, though, Clinton would have had more delegates.

The aging screen siren in Sunset Boulevard flares up in anger when someone tells her she "used to be big."

"I'm still big," she fires back, "it's the pictures that got small."

It's been a bit like that for the California primary (which, this year, will be held June 7). Once the grand dame in the nominating season finale, California hasn't basked in the national nominating spotlight for decades.

With all its charms and beaucoup delegates, California has descended to the status of bit player — or, worse yet, an afterthought — in the selection of the major party nominees.

The Golden State almost made a difference for the Democrats back in 1984, but it has not actually decided that party's nominee since 1972. Among Republicans, Barry Goldwater was the last to clear a big hurdle in the state en route to the nomination way back in 1964 — more than half a century ago.

The sad part is that 2016 was going to be different. In a Hollywood-style comeback, the Golden State primary was ready for its close-up once again — destined to determine the nominee in at least one or maybe even both major parties. Switch on those klieg lights.

Ah, but that now sounds so April. Since then, Californians have had that sinking feeling one more time. The pace by which the field was winnowed went breakneck overnight. The Republican race, once teeming with rivals, is down to one candidate. And the Democratic nomination, while still contested, is likely to be determined when New Jersey polls close — roughly three hours ahead of the West Coast.

We need not feel sorry for California, of course. The state has been on an almost continual roll since World War II. It has been the greatest source of economic growth, agricultural production and cultural influence the country has ever seen. Most recently it incubated a trillion-dollar, computer-based high-tech industry that is transforming every facet of civilization.

Politically, California remains the nation's leading source of campaign money and its richest trove of votes. In the last generation, it added millions of new residents and expanded to an unprecedented 53 seats in Congress and 55 votes in the Electoral College — enough to furnish one-fifth of a national majority.

That's why, in presidential terms, California is nothing less than the linchpin of long-term party dominance. From 1968 through 1988, it voted Republican for the White House and boosted Republicans to five wins in six elections. Since then, it has voted Democratic in every presidential cycle, and the Democrats have won four of six (and five in the popular vote).

In the 1980s, there was talk of a Republican lock on the Electoral College. It was a strong case, but it rested on California as the first step toward the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. When the Big Kahuna moved leftward in the 1990s, everything changed.

Nowadays you hear Democrats talk about a hard base of 18 states (plus the District of Columbia) adding up to 247 electoral votes. That means a Democratic nominee might only need Florida, or a combination of Ohio and one other swing state, to reach the magic number of 270. But again, the starting point is California. Turn California red, and that 247 drops to 192, while the Republican hard base rises to 246. Instant karma reversal.

This makes it all the odder that California's venerable presidential primary, first instituted in 1912 and traditionally held in June, has lost so much luster. But it really just reflects the reality of a process that begins and ends earlier than it ever did in the past.

California once played the role of a baseball team's ninth-inning pitcher, nailing down a win. But now it's more like a player waiting on the bench in case of extra innings (which never happen).

Hubert Humphrey, the senator and vice president who ran for president three times, once called California "the Super Bowl of the primaries." In Humphrey's day, the primaries began in March in New Hampshire, ambled into April in places like Wisconsin and then went back East for some big tests in May. The issue was usually still unresolved by the time California (and a supporting cast of smaller states) spoke up in early June. That made the vote in California the loudest of the voters' last word before the convention.

But in the 1970s, long-shot candidates started stealing a march on the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary by going to Iowa's even-earlier caucuses. Soon, other states were creeping forward on the calendar, including Southern states creating a traffic jam called Super Tuesday. By the late 1980s, both parties were picking their nominees before the end of March.

And that pattern has pretty much predominated since. California tried to get in on the early rush by moving its 1996 presidential primary to March. But that year, the nominees in both parties were still settled before California voted. The same was true in 2000 and 2004. Frustrated, California moved its presidential primary back to June to coincide with its state and local primaries — a move made in part to save money.

All of which may make at least some people in the state, be they native or adopted or just Californians-at-heart, a touch nostalgic for the days when their June event ruled the world.

Here's a look back at the presidential primary's history in California since World War II.

2012: President Obama was renominated without opposition. Mitt Romney (who owned a home in California) had the Republican nomination sewn up in April.

2008: Candidate Obama lost the California primary to Hillary Clinton, but it wasn't enough to matter because he remained ahead in delegates. Clinton dropped out the following week. On the Republican side, John McCain had been the de facto nominee since February.

2004: Even with its primary in March, California found itself voting after 20 other states had already held their events and after John Kerry had already wrapped up the nomination. President George W. Bush was not challenged for renomination.

2000: Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush emerged from January and February primaries and caucuses back East with insurmountable leads, making California's March event another snoozer.

1996: President Bill Clinton ran unopposed in the Democratic Party, and Bob Dole emerged from a field of eight Republicans before the Ides of March. Pat Buchanan tried to make it interesting in California but got less than 20 percent of the vote.

1992: Candidate Bill Clinton surprised some people by defeating former (and future) California Gov. Jerry Brown. It was the last hurrah for Brown's oft-reiterated presidential ambitions, but even if Brown had won the state, Clinton would have had more delegates. On the GOP side, President George H.W. Bush easily held off lingering challenger Buchanan, who had about a quarter of the vote.

1988: Both Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush had secured their nominations long before the June primary, but Jesse Jackson and Bob Dole persisted in contesting California. Jackson got 35 percent of the Democratic vote, Dole just 13 percent of the Republican.

1984: The last candidate California might actually have rescued was Democrat Gary Hart, who won 39 percent of the vote against Walter Mondale and Jesse Jackson. Hart got a huge stash of delegates by winning nearly all the congressional districts, but he was wiped out on the same day in New Jersey — leaving him shy of Mondale's tally. On the GOP side, President Ronald Reagan cruised unopposed, warming up for a 49-state landslide over Mondale in November.

1980: Reagan got 80 percent of the Republican vote over Illinois Rep. John Anderson, who would run as an independent in November. Among Democrats, incumbent President Jimmy Carter suffered the ignominy of defeat at the hands of Teddy Kennedy. Carter, however, survived the blow to win the nomination (and lose to Reagan in the fall).

1976: In the nation's bicentennial year, California went with two favorite sons: sitting Gov. Jerry Brown, then just 38, on the Democratic side, and former Gov. Ronald Reagan, then 65, in the GOP. Both won by 30 points or more, but neither would be nominated that year. The Democrats nominated Carter; the GOP stuck with incumbent President Gerald Ford.

1972: President Richard Nixon ran virtually unopposed, so all the action was on the Democratic side, where Humphrey lost by just five points in a multi-candidate race won by George McGovern. It was the last time the California delegates were allowed to vote en bloc under the old "unit rule," and their combined weight put McGovern over the top. McGovern, an outspoken foe of the Vietnam War, would lose 49 states to Nixon that fall.

1968: Another Democratic primary that will live in memory was prompted by the decision of President Lyndon Johnson not to seek another term in the White House. Bobby Kennedy entered the race late against antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy, who had helped force LBJ out. Kennedy won the crucial California vote by 46-42 percent. But minutes after giving his victory speech, Kennedy was assassinated. McCarthy was denied the nomination at the convention, which nominated Humphrey. On the Republican side, sitting Gov. Reagan won the primary as a favorite-son candidate and an 11th-hour challenger to the nomination of Nixon. Although Nixon was a native Californian, he did not contest the state's primary that year. He already had enough delegates to win the nomination. He was elected to his first term in the fall.

1964: President Johnson was unopposed, so the focus was entirely on Republican Barry Goldwater's win on the Republican side over New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. The GOP convention in San Francisco set the tone for a more conservative GOP in the generations to come (even though Goldwater lost badly to Johnson that fall).

1960: Nixon and John F. Kennedy won the primary in their respective parties, but both had already secured their nominations in the earlier primaries.

1956: President Dwight Eisenhower was all but unopposed for renomination, and so was the Democrat he had beaten in 1952, Adlai Stevenson. Both won California on the way to what proved to be a replay of the 1952 outcome in November.

1952: California's primary mattered as sitting Gov. Earl Warren won, making him a formidable element in the close-fought convention that summer between Eisenhower and longtime conservative hero Robert A. Taft (neither of whom chose to contest the California primary). Warren would throw his support to Eisenhower at the convention and later be appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court. On the Democratic side, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver won the California primary, defeating Edmund G. Brown (Jerry Brown's father), who would later be elected governor. The nomination, however, went to Adlai Stevenson, who was not a factor in the California primary.

1948: On the Democratic side, incumbent President Harry Truman won the primary unopposed. Sitting governor Warren, popular across party lines in California, won the GOP primary as an unopposed favorite son. At the convention, California's rising postwar importance was augured by Warren's selection as Dewey's running mate (at a time when Dewey was assumed to be a sure winner in November).

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for