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The Impact of California's Early Primary


When Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack withdrew from the presidential race yesterday, he said the reason was, quote, "money and only money." The need for money will become even more urgent if California and other major states decide to move their primaries up in the schedule. That would seem to favor those candidates whose names and networks are enough to raise it, including Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama.

In presidential politics, money has often meant California. Candidates would fly in to L.A. or San Francisco to meet and milk major fundraisers, then fly out. But if California now holds its presidential primary on February 5 - just three weeks after Iowa - it becomes the single largest source of delegates too. NPR's political editor Ken Rudin joins us. Ken, thanks for being with us.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: California primary hasn't counted for much in the nominating process since, what, 1972?

RUDIN: That would be the last time. That's when George McGovern defeated Hubert Humphrey in early June and basically won the nomination that year. Barry Goldwater won the 1964 Republican nomination probably because he beat Nelson Rockefeller in the California primary. And in 1968 - well, of course we don't know what would have happened, but Bobby Kennedy won the primary then. But then there were only a handful of primaries stretched out between March and June. Now though, there are so many primaries and so early in the process, that by keeping their primary so late, as California has done in June, they have not been affected. Now in more recent years, they've tried to move up to March, but even then was too late. The nominations are usually decided shortly after Iowa and New Hampshire.

SIMON: Now, of course, the complaint has been for years you have Iowa and New Hampshire that are not demographically as diverse as the largest state in the union, California. Is the hope now that California will become a kingmaker in a way it hasn't been?

RUDIN: Well, there are a lot of candidates who would like to think that. Rudy Giuliani is one of the people who thinks that California, being such a diverse state with a lot of different kinds of Republicans, could be good for his candidacy. But the problem is, given the fact that not only is California talking about moving its primary up to February 5th, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida are also. You need to have a ton of money to compete. Iowa and New Hampshire and the early states - Nevada, South Carolina - they even become even more important because there's a bandwagon effect. If you win in Iowa, you win in New Hampshire, then basically it takes over for you. That's what we saw with John Kerry, 2004. That's what we saw with Al Gore in 2000.

SIMON: The logic of the system over let's say the past generation has been that in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, a candidate who doesn't have all the money can actually meet people, can project his or her personality to a relatively limited number of people and actually their candidacy can gain some ground. That hope has disappeared in the process?

RUDIN: Absolutely. Because in a multimedia market like California, you have to have a ton of money to compete in the north, in the south, and the expensive TV stations. Sure, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and John McCain and Mitt Romney, perhaps Rudy Giuliani, they could raise that money. But what about the other candidates, the Bill Richardsons of the world, the Chris Dodd's, the Mike Huckabees.

SIMON: Chris Dodd has a lot of banking money, one reads this week.

RUDIN: He does. That's exactly right. But all the candidates - if they don't have the hundred gazillion dollars you need to compete right away, what happens after you do well in Iowa and New Hampshire? Do you have enough time to raise that money? Not when California comes three weeks later.

SIMON: Are you going to get tired? I mean we're two years away from this and you're already in full flight.

RUDIN: Actually, I'm working on the 2012 elections. I'm starting any day now.

SIMON: NPR's Ken Rudin. Thank you.

RUDIN: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Weekend Edition Saturday
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.