Will California's Early Primary Make a Difference?

In just over three months, Californians will cast ballots in the state's earliest presidential primary in history. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde takes a look at the looming February 5 primary and whether it'll make a difference.

Kitty Felde: For years, Californians waited until June to vote for their presidential choice.

Raphe Sonenshein: Anything is better than a June primary. Because California could be assured of not mattering.

Felde: Raphe Sonenshein is a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton.

Sonenshein: It really hasn't mattered probably for 30 years in Presidential nominations.

Felde: But this time could be different. In 2008, Californians vote early, on February 5th. It's not the first time the state with the most voters in the nation has tried to push up the primary date.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe: We had a March primary, and that turned out to be totally irrelevant to the outcome to of the nomination process.

Felde: Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC. Bebitch Jeffe says we've had several March primaries. Back in 1996, Californians voted for presidential candidates on March 4th. It was supposed to be one of the earliest primaries in the nation, but other states jumped ahead. By the time Californians got to the polls, voters in 27 other states had already cast ballots in primaries or caucuses, and the outcome in the largest state in the nation meant little.

California's primary remained in March for the last two presidential elections. Cal State Fullerton's Raphe Sonenshein doubts whether pushing it up a month this time around will make any difference.

Sonenshein: I think everyone had a naive hope that once California moved early, nobody else would move. And that clearly is not going to happen.

Felde: But Sherry Bebitch Jeffe suggests that Sacramento lawmakers, the ones who chose the February date, aren't as naive as they seem.

Bebitch Jeffe: You can make a very good argument that the February date is as much a product of state politics as national politics.

Felde: That's because there's more than just the names of presidential candidates on the ballot. There's also an initiative that would relax term limits for state lawmakers.

Bebitch Jeffe: If that initiative passes in February, it will allow legislators who are maybe impacted by term limits to run again for at least another term.

Felde: But Bebitch Jeffe concedes the earlier primary is changing the way candidates campaign in California.

Bebitch Jeffe: Instead of slipping into the state, tapping the ATM of American politics, and slipping out, they now find it advantageous to stick their head out the window and do at least one public event.

Felde: Candidates do seem to be making the rounds earlier than usual in the Golden State.