DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here in California, voters might get a head start in selecting nominees for president in 2020. A measure recently passed by the state legislature would move primary elections from June to March. This is an effort to make the state more relevant, but, as Capital Public Radio's Ben Bradford reports from Sacramento, this could set off an arms race among states over which will vote earliest.
BEN BRADFORD, BYLINE: In June of last year, for the first time in recent memory, it looked like California might determine the Democratic Party's nominee. Hillary Clinton toured the cities and Bernie Sanders basically camped here for a month.
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BERNIE SANDERS: To be honest, I didn't know that there were this many people in Vallejo.
BRADFORD: But by the time voters actually went to the polls, Clinton had secured the nomination. For the sixth time in seven presidential campaigns, the nation's largest state wasn't relevant.
KIM ALEXANDER: Our voters sit on the sidelines almost every presidential election, and it's really disappointing.
BRADFORD: Kim Alexander of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation says candidates raise money in California while largely ignoring voters. Secretary of State Alex Padilla has proposed shifting the state's primary to March.
ALEX PADILLA: We're the most populous state in the nation, the most diverse state in the nation, with the largest economy of any state in the nation. We should have much more of a say in who the nominees for president are.
BRADFORD: California Republican Party Chair Jim Brulte says an earlier primary is harder for other candidates on the ballot.
JIM BRULTE: Fundraising has to start earlier. Organizational development has to start earlier. And then you have a huge gap from March until the November general election.
BRADFORD: Still, on balance, Brulte too supports holding primaries earlier.
BRULTE: You don't want a candidate just doing a drive-by campaign in your state.
BRADFORD: So does State Senator Ron Calderon.
RON CALDERON: It will encourage presidential candidates to campaign here and to debate and to discuss issues and policies important to our people.
BRADFORD: Actually, that was former State Senator Ron Calderon back in 2007 when he authored a bill to move the 2008 primary up to February, which California did. Lawmakers have also moved up the state's primary in 1996, 2000 and 2004, always for the same reason. Speaking via Skype, political scientist Josh Putnam says those attempts did little to increase the state's relevance.
JOSH PUTNAM: The times in the past where they have moved up, it's been a super-crowded week.
BRADFORD: Smaller states have moved up their primaries so they don't get left behind. And then, Putnam says, candidates still avoid California.
PUTNAM: You know, it's not a situation where you can just drop-in on California in a week's time, right, and be able to campaign across a very big, area-wise, and a very diverse and populous state on top of that. It's expensive to do that.
BRADFORD: Should the California measure become law, Putnam expects a new round of jockeying among states for the right to go ahead. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bradford in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.