California has finally ended its 16-year pursuit of the
white whale of presidential primary relevance.

When Gov. Jerry Brown last week signed the bill to move the
state’s 2012 primary election back to its traditional home in June, it was
recognition that California was never going to be Iowa or New Hampshire.

More than that, though, the choice was a reminder that while
the presidential race gets the flashy headlines, those too-often-ignored state
legislative and congressional races can be even more important to California.

It seemed like such an easy call back in 1996. Since
California’s June election was at the end of the presidential primary season,
moving the primary to March 26 would make the nation’s biggest state a real
player in the race to pick the presidential candidates, bringing in the big
names to actually campaign up and down the state and not just raise money to spend
elsewhere in the country.

But reality – and the $1.5 million-plus cost of running a
major TV ad campaign in this media-heavy state – intervened and California’s
clout was about what it had been four years before.

If at first you don’t succeed … so the state moved the
primary to March 7 in 2000, March 2 in 2004 and Feb. 5 in 2008.

Of course, since no one wanted to be the tail on the primary
pooch, other states moved their primaries up, too. The Christmas lights were
still hanging when Iowa held its caucuses on Jan. 3, with New Hampshire not far
behind with its Jan. 8 election.

And that Feb. 5 date that California picked? Well, 22 other
states and territories decided to hold their own primaries that day, turning
Super Tuesday into Super Duper Tuesday and leaving the state as just another
dog in a very large pack.

In order to move the presidential primary to early February
and still give down ballot candidates a chance to raise money – and interest –
for their campaigns, the state split that vote from the
legislative/congressional primary, which was held in June.

Not that many people noticed. Without the presidential
contest at the top of the ticket, the turnout for the June 2008 legislative
primary was a dismal 28.2 percent, the lowest ever for a statewide California

Not everyone’s happy with the upcoming change. Although the
two major parties have barred another February free-for-all, California
Republicans, looking at their busload of presidential wannabes, again see an
early March primary as a chance to bring the election to the state.

That ignores the past 16 years of history, but hope springs
eternal, especially in politics.

Democrats, including Cupertino Assemblyman Paul Fong, who
pushed for the change, argue that the state could save around $100 million by
consolidating the primary elections. That argument might not have resonated so
loudly if the Democrats didn’t already their November candidate.

Nationally, what the 2008 election showed is that Iowa and
New Hampshire were going to hang on to their "first in the nation" status if
they had to wear Pilgrim hats and have turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie for
their pre-primary meal.

But in California, the vote showed that a split primary with
two elections months apart leaves one election as a voter-popular winner and
the other as the low-turnout loser. It’s not hard to guess which would be

That’s not what the state needs, especially this year. The
primary will be the first election run in the new districts redrawn using the
2010 census data. It also will feature some important – and entertaining —
Democrat vs. Democrat and Republican vs. Republican scrums, made all the more
interesting by California’s new open primary rules.

With all those changes, the state needs more primary voters,
not fewer, if the ultimate results are going to be truly representative of the

Another 28 percent turnout just won’t cut it.

John Wildermuth is a
longtime writer on California politics.