Why Doesn’t Mighty California Produce More Presidential Nominees?

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign woes have been chronicled extensively the last few days from Scott Lay’s column on this site to the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. 

It’s beginning to look like another presidential election will pass by without a Californian heading a major party ticket.

For arguably the most influential state in the union leading the way on so many issues over recent decades, not to mention the most populous state, one would think that California leaders would top many presidential tickets but that has not been the case. In fact, California’s current crop of presidential wannabes are not generating much excitement even at home.

The state’s voters are not behind any of the California Democratic candidates, Harris, Tom Steyer and Marianne Williamson, vying for the party’s nomination. The three candidates between them couldn’t capture even 10% combined in recent statewide polls. 

In March of this year, the webpage Five Thirty Eight’s Nathaniel Rakich researched the home states of presidential nominees from the two major parties since the founding of each party. He found New York to be the most dominate state for supplying nominees with 25, 15 Democrats and 10 Republicans. The calculation was made on the home state of the candidate when he or she ran for president, not where they were born. If a candidate was nominated multiple times, that candidate was counted multiple times. (This list was based on when the two major parties were formed so Virginia, home to four of the first five presidents, didn’t even make the list.)

According to the statistics, California has produced six major party nominees—all Republicans. In fact, Rakich notes that there has never been a Democratic presidential nominee from anywhere in the West.

Since the article doesn’t break down the candidate list, I assume he counts Richard Nixon as a California candidate just once in 1960 when he ran against John F. Kennedy. By 1968 and 1972, Nixon was considered a resident of New York. Ronald Reagan was the Republican nominee twice as was Herbert Hoover and John Fremont was the first Republican nominee for president in 1856.

But despite attempts at the top job by prominent Californians like the Browns father and son, Pat and Jerry, Sen. Alan Cranston, and Gov. Pete Wilson, California candidates rarely capture the support across the country even coming from such a powerful and influential state.

The problem could be the candidates themselves and the message they bring to the national stage. For instance, Harris’s uneven campaign and lack of clarity on a number of issues has caused her to stumble.

But the days of Favorite Daughters or Favorite Sons candidates seems to be more of an anachronism with the rise of various methods of communication and connections amongst people across the country.

The state’s sheer size and, importantly, its culture, puts politics well down the list of interests reflected elsewhere. California is a single state according to its boundary lines, but not so much when it comes to thinking about where a resident lives. Southern and northern Californians; coastal and inland Californians often seem to live in different universes.

Many statewide elected officials in California are not known to the state’s voters beyond being a name in a newspaper. Not much passion for these relatively unknown officials is generated. California doesn’t foster the intense political support or interest found in other places. So when a California candidate runs there is often no groundswell of support pushing the state’s candidate to the top of the heap despite the money and sway the state emanates.

A talented candidate can overcome these obstacles but it won’t be easy. The days of high-powered states dominating presidential politics in the past—Virginia, New York, Ohio—has not been duplicated so far by mighty California.

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