California: The ATM of Presidential Politics

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Against astronomical odds, next year California may play a decisive role in the Presidential nominating process.

It’s been important before.

In 1964 conservative Senator Barry Goldwater sealed the GOP nomination when he dispatched the Establishment candidate, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, here.

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In 1972 Senator George McGovern clinched the Democratic nomination with his California win. But for nearly four decades, the Golden State has been a by-stander.

In 1996 , frustrated with California's continuing irrelevance—despite being home to the nation’s largest delegate trove, the legislature moved the state's primary up from June to March.

Other states jumped the line ahead of California—including nine contests on early March’s “Super Tuesday.”

So, in 2007, with the backing of then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 2008 Presidential Primary was pushed up to February. And the state found itself swamped in a Super Tuesday tsunami of two dozen state primaries.

The cost to the cash-strapped state? Somewhere around $100 million.

This year, fed up with California’s inability to gain political clout and scratching for easy spending cuts to help plug the state’s burgeoning budget hole, the legislature passed AB 30, which once again consolidated the state’s presidential primary with the June state ballot.

The move will have little impact on Democrats.

The incumbent President, Barack Obama, is likely to be easily renominated. But the GOP race has been fluid—even if the media have already anointed former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney and current Texas Governor Rick Perry the only contenders in a two-man race.

If the GOP race remains competitive and--given the tenacity of various “message” candidates-- it likely will, might California finally have the opportunity to make a difference?

Well, there’s an outside chance, but it’s a chance.

In the spin room at the MSNBC/Politico Republican presidentail candidate debate in Simi Valley on Wednesday, the buzz centered around Florida as The Decider.

Odds are that a social conservative—once thought to be Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, now Perry—will take the Iowa caucuses and an “Establishment” Republican—say, Mitt Romney, (although Jon Huntsman fits the description, too) will win the New Hampshire primary. The rubber match could take place in South Carolina, which looks like Perry turf, or Florida, where many of the so-called “viable” candidates are fighting fiercely, but where Perry appears to be the favorite--today. (His Social Security “Ponzi scheme” riff not withstanding.)

A decisive win in Florida could shut down the GOP nomination fight; a muddled result could portend a long trek through the primary calendar—perhaps all the way to June.

Remember the early run-up to California’s 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary? The race was positioned by the media as a big-money, brutal battle between two multimillionaires, while the eventual winner, Gray Davis, languished in a money-strapped, distant third-place.

Early Election 2008 surveys showed former-NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani riding high in the polls. Then there was the premature coronation of Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side.

"It's important to remember that the first contest is five months away and anything can happen," GOP strategist Mike Dennehy recently told the Associated Press. "We shouldn't write anyone off until the first votes are cast."

At least.

The reality is that California will never be irrelevant in the Presidential nominating process—not as long as it maintains its status as the ATM of American politics.

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