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Image: Imago/M. Aurich

In California, a referendum on nominees

Milan Gagnon, Cathedral City, California
June 7, 2016

Six US states have cast ballots on the last big day of the presidential primaries. Unfortunately for voters there, the nominees have effectively already been named. Milan Gagnon reports from California.


Back in March, supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders sat around an office table in a strip-mall storefront in Cathedral City, California. On their own uncompensated time and hunched over their own laptops, they used their own cellphones to dial dozens of potential voters in what were battleground states at the time.

"Bernie talks about it in his campaign speech: One man can't do it alone," said Niki Slaughter, who last volunteered for a campaign in 2008, siding with Barack Obama against then-Senator Hillary Clinton. Slaughter became a "Berner" because the independent senator stands up to corporations, GMOs and lobbyists and she doesn't feel that Clinton has. "I didn't vote for her in '08 because I didn't like her," she said. "A lot of those issues are still there."

That was March, though, before Donald Trump drummed his fellow Republicans out by dumbfounding them in debates, tweaking them on Twitter and pummeling them at the polls. It was before Clinton claimed near-certain mathematical victory after winning 27 primaries and the promised support of 571 superdelegates. It was three months before California would get a chance to vote. On June 7, about 18 million registered voters in the most populous of the 50 US states will be offered what has essentially become a nonbinding party referendum on Trump and Clinton.

Infografik US-Vorwahlen Gewinner Stand 06.06.2016 Englisch

"It pisses everybody off," Slaughter said back in March. "In California, we've got it all," she added. "California would appreciate a little more love."

Iowa goes first?

Iowa goes first, this year on February 1. New Hampshire voted a week later, followed by Nevada and South Carolina. On March 1, 12 more states cast ballots, and only then did the combined populations of the early-primary states exceed California's nearly 40 million.

The Democratic primaries were already a two-person race by that point. A week into March, four of the original 17 Republican candidates remained, though less than a third of the nation had voted. More than 30 states and territories chose their candidates in the ensuing months. Long after those deciding ballots were cast, California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota and the Democrats of North Dakota are finally getting their vote.

California's primary was moved from June to March in 1994 and back to June again in 2005 to reduce campaign expenditures for candidates for the state and national legislatures. Then, in advance of the 2008 presidential election, the legislature sent a bill to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to split the state and presidential primaries and move the latter way up, to February.

A voter marks her ballot at Michael J. Manatt Community Center in Brooklyn, Iowa
Iowa's 3.1 million people have a greater say in the nominations process than California's 38.8 millionImage: picture-alliance / D. Cummings

"Despite a lot of grousing, the order has not changed from Iowa first, New Hampshire second and proceeds from there," said Carole Migden, who was a state senator in 2007 and co-introduced Senate Bill 113.

"California is also the chief destination for national political fundraising; this is true of both major parties." She cited the state's role in the national food chain, economy and social movements and added: "So, yes, the state of California has sought to have an earlier voice in the selection process."

At a cost of up to $100 million in state and local funds per election, Californians voted thrice in 2008: February's presidential primary, statewide primaries in June and November's general election. In 2011, ahead of the 2012 Republican primaries, Schwarzenegger's replacement, Governor Jerry Brown, signed Assembly Bill 80, which restored the combined primary to June.

"We had a February primary in 2008 that had a good turnout but cost $85 million, and then we had a poor turnout in June," California Voter Federation president Kim Alexander said, using a conservative estimate of the costs of the split primary. "So, I don't think lawmakers wanted to repeat 2008."

Californians with the means have attempted to re-enfranchise themselves with their wallets, donating $74 million this cycle, nearly $24 million of that to Republican candidates. A paltry $385,929 has gone to Donald Trump. A little under half of the total went to Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who dropped out in March and April, respectively; the political scion Jeb Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson extracted about $3 million each from the state before quitting in March; and Ohio Governor John Kasich, who ended his race in April, and former California senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina, who left in February, took about $1.5 million each from Californians.

Golden Gate Bridge
California is an economic powerhouse as the home to major defense firms, Hollywood and Silicon ValleyImage: DW

In all, 10 Republican candidates received more from state donors than Trump has, but Californians won't have the opportunity to cast a meaningful vote for any of them - and most of that money was spent campaigning in other states, addressing other states' issues.

Sanders' last stand

In Cathedral City in May, a couple miles from where the Sanders supporters had phone-banked, the senator stood in front of more than a thousand people on a dusty baseball diamond. "If we have a large voter turnout, we are going to win the California primary," Sanders said, shortly before leaving the stage to hoots and handclaps and David Bowie's "Starman." "So I hope that on June 7, you will bring out your family, bring out your friends, your co-workers and let this great state, one of the most progressive states in America, tell the world you are ready for the political revolution."

And his supporters are. There are wages to make fair, there is fracking to put an end to, there are GMOs to label.

Los Angeles-based artist Rachid Bouhamidi said supporters should turn out for "the simple fact the primary has not been concluded and we still in California have the opportunity to vote for the candidate we actually want."

Bouhamidi said it was important to send Clinton the message that the party may have picked her, but it didn't necessarily mean the people had, and she couldn't assume their support just because she presented a better alternative to Trump for many Californians.

"Aside from the fact this is how voters really, viscerally feel about it, this kind of intransigent attitude signals to others, opponents and supporters alike, that it is, in fact, not over and, in an important way, will not be over, even if Bernie Sanders has to concede," he said.

Back in March, not far from that dusty baseball diamond where Sanders would speak in May, members of the Palm Desert Greens Democratic Club made cases for their candidates. Clinton supporters cited her resilience over a quarter century in the public eye, the chance to make history by electing the first woman president, and her qualifications after eight years as first lady, eight as senator and four as secretary of state; Sanders supporters compared his unwavering idealism with Clinton's perceived shiftiness, said that, as the first Jewish president, he, too, would break ground, and cited his own public service, starting as mayor of Vermont's largest city, Burlington, in 1981.

No consensus was reached, but the retirees agreed that the Democrats had put forth two candidates they could support in 2016.

They had a lot to say about the candidates, those Democrats back in March. But now it's June, and they'll have little say in the party's nominee.

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