Dan Walters: California is still a backwater in presidential race

dwalters@sacbee.comNovember 7, 2012 

Dan Walters

Many of California's political contests were still in doubt late Tuesday, but long before the polls closed – months before, in fact – everyone knew that President Barack Obama would win the state's largest-in-the-nation bloc of 55 electoral votes.

Once again, California's status in presidential politics, as a source of major financing for candidates but a campaign backwater, was ratified.

It's been 24 years since California voted Republican for the White House and 12 years since the GOP even made an effort here, albeit to no avail. The smallest crossroads in Ohio received more attention from Obama and challenger Mitt Romney this year than the nation's largest state – except, of course, when they swooped in briefly to raise money.

California's irrelevance in presidential politics extends beyond the quadrennial partisan duel. With a June presidential primary, the state is equally impotent – again, except as a political ATM – in choosing the parties' nominees.

Democrats, of course, like the state's true-blue status.

Its 55 electoral votes are one-fifth of the 270 needed to win the White House and thus are a strong base.

California's Democratic politicians don't like their minuscule role in the nomination process, but their sporadic efforts to strengthen it – pushing up the primary for a couple of cycles – didn't have any effect, so they finally returned to a June primary.

Could California play a more relevant role in choosing future presidents? Yes, but it's not likely.

Obviously eliminating the Electoral College system and going to a full popular vote would make California's voters just as important as those of any other state, but that would take a constitutional amendment that a divided Congress is not going to pass.

Last year, the Legislature's Democrats passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation adding California to the so-called "National Popular Vote" compact.

If adopted by enough states with at least 270 electoral votes, it would require electors from those states to cast their votes for the national popular vote winner, regardless of party.

It was inspired by the hotly contested 2000 presidential duel in which Democrat Al Gore narrowly won the popular vote but lost to Republican George W. Bush in the Electoral College after a bitter legal battle. But it's not moving very quickly elsewhere, and the closeness of this year's popular vote may give Democrats pause.

There's another way California could become relevant – by adopting the systems in Nebraska and Maine, where electoral votes are awarded by congressional district, rather than on the winner-take-all basis of California and other states.

But that would require approval of a Democratic Legislature – clearly a nonstarter – or a ballot measure.

Don't hold your breath.

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