California, the state with the most delegates, Electoral College votes usually plays caboose to the Iowa-New Hampshire electoral locomotive. In an attempt to give the 23 million eligible voters a shot at picking the next president, California moved its primary to February 5, starting the avalanche that created the earliest "Super Tuesday" in history, when fully 47% of the Demcoratic delegates will be chosen. This time, California, which elects nearly half of those delegates (20%) really can play a role, especially on the Democratic side. And believe it or not, we start to vote this week.
I chaired Howard Dean's presidential campaign in California four years ago. Much of the energy and money for that campaign came from the then novel online activity here in California. It's a distant memory by now, but at the end of 2003, just over four years ago, every pundit had crowned Governor Dean as the nominee (sounds familiar; always short the pundits and you'll get rich).
The only problem was that no one had voted. Iowa happened. Dean came in third. New Hampshire followed nine days later; Dean rebounded to come in second, but by then his campaign was out of money and energy. California seemed a bastion of strength for Dean (although who really knows), but our primary was March second, seven weeks after Iowa, by which time Howard Dean had dropped out and John Kerry was the nominee in all but name.
Is the largest state in the nation again irrelevant in selecting the nominess? Maybe not. On the eve of New Hampshire's primary, Californians begin to vote by mail for the candidate of their choice. in 2004, fully 41.5% of the votes were by mail, meaning they had to be in the mail nearly a week before the physical election date. Last year, it was 46%; this year, easily 50% could vote early.
Therefore, by 26 January, the date of the South Carolina primary, easily one-third of Californians will likely have voted. Democrats select convention delegates by congressional district; any candidate that gets 15% or more of the votes cast in a congressional district gets a proportionate share of the delegates. That means that literally hundreds of delegates could already be selected by the 5 February election day.
The Clinton campaign claims it has the strongest "ground game" in each of the 58 counties and that they'll take the most delegates in the end (and remember, this is about delegates, not about actual popular vote). The Obama campaign has already begun emailing its supporters, asking them to register to vote (using Credo"s great voter registration tool). If Senator Obama or Senator Edwards or Senator Clinton is capable of chasing early vote-by-mail ballots, California could surprise.
Virtually the entire California political establishment and consultantocracy from Speaker Nunez to Mayors Villaraigosa and Newsom to the liberal lion Senator Sheila Kuehl, have endorsed Senator Clinton. The Latino leadership in this state values its power and capacity to organize. Can they turn out the vote for Senator Clinton? Will those endorsements matter (they usually don't). Will UNITE HERE and SEIU, both of which are big Edwards backers in this state, manage to get their members to vote by mail, sealing the deal before the media decides? Or will Senator Obama's message of hope and empowerment from outside of the system without much establishment support, carry the day?
We at the Courage Campaign are launching an online effort to encourage friends to tell friends to vote. And we'll ask them whom they prefer. This state represents the nation better than any other. We have a colossal structural deficit, broken public schools, a ruptured healthcare system (with some strong bipartisan suggestions on the table for a mend, very similar to what many of the candidates offer), a crumbling infrastructure and still we are the beacon of hope for much of the world. We invent, we build, we demand environmental improvement, we entertain, we feed much of the nation and we rely on immigrant labor.
Let's see if the candidates can organize in this state. Do those endorsements translate into votes? Regardless, this time we have a chance to decide.