Why can’t California produce a serious Democratic presidential candidate?

By Garry South

April 19, 2022

The Hill

What is it with California and its homegrown Democratic presidential candidates?

It has been the most populous state for 60 years, having displaced New York clear back in 1962. It has more people than Canada or Australia. There are more than 20 million registered voters in the state — more voters than there are people living in 47 of the other 49 states. It sends by far the largest delegation to the quadrennial Democratic national nominating conventions. The state offers 55 electoral votes — fully one-fifth of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Yet it has never produced a Democratic president of the United States.

Even harder to fathom, until Kamala Harris’s nomination for vice president in 2020, there had never even been a California Democratic nominee for either president or vice president in the history of the Republic. And it can’t be chalked up to a lack of trying.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown contested for the Democratic nomination in both 1976 and 1980, then tried it again after coming out of political hibernation in 1992. California Sen. Alan Cranston was the first Democrat to launch a bid for the nomination in 1984. And of course, the Democratic primary process in 2020 saw both Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Eric Swalwell, one of the Democrats’ most public faces in the Russia probe, actively running. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti made exploratory trips to Iowa and other states before announcing he would forego a run.

A gaggle of other Democratic California elected officials also took quixotic stabs at running for the White House, including Irvine Mayor Larry Agran in 1992 and Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty in 1972.

So why has this behemoth of a nation-state, with its deep-blue politics (a Republican hasn’t won statewide office since 2006, hasn’t won a U.S Senate seat since 1988), been so impotent in producing one of its own to run for president as the Democratic nominee?

As someone who has lived and voted in California for more than 30 years and run multiple statewide campaigns here, I would posit a couple of reasons for this failure. First, as a huge state with a limited political attention span, Californians simply don’t fall in love with their politicians. I was born and raised in Montana, where Sen. Mike Mansfield was considered almost a demigod. Or consider Massachusetts and its love affair — over nearly 70 years — with the Kennedys. That doesn’t happen in California. Thus, California presidential candidates don’t automatically enjoy a home-field advantage. That old biblical saying is perhaps apt: “A prophet is without honor in his own country.”

In my experience, another part of this is because residents of this mega-state tend to believe that someone elected governor or senator ought to first and foremost do their day job and be satisfied that they represent the largest state with one of the world’s biggest economies.

Most recently, of course, after an auspicious launch and attention-getting performances in the early debates, then-Sen. Harris pulled the plug on her bid for the nomination before a single vote was cast. One of the primary reasons was polls showed she would have been creamed in her home state. A survey released by the Los Angeles Times in December 2019 revealed just a paltry 7 percent of California Democrats supporting her candidacy. What’s worse, the same poll showed 61 percent of Democrats wanted her to drop out of the race. How’s that for a big middle finger from your own constituents? Even as vice president, Harris’s job approval in California is in the tank (only 38 percent).

It’s also instructive to recall Jerry Brown’s performance in his own state during his runs for the White House. When he launched a last-minute campaign in 1976, less than two years into his first term and — at just 38 years old — considered a sort of political phenomenon, he did win California handily over Jimmy Carter in the June primary. But in 1980, after Brown had won his 1978 re-election by 20 percent, he garnered only 10 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, essentially abandoned his campaign, and as sitting governor received an embarrassingly meager 4 percent of the vote in his home state.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Brown’s third run for president in 1992, which was definitely not a charm. In the Democratic primary that year, Bill Clinton handily beat Brown 47-40 in Brown’s own home state — where the latter had been on statewide ballots a total of eight times before and had served as governor for eight years.

Another reason California candidates have not done well nationally is because of California’s image in much of the rest of country. Although lots of out-of-staters like to vacation in the state — and send their kids to Stanford or UCLA — we are the big kid on the block everyone loves to hate. California is “La La Land,” the “Left Coast,” and “The Land of Fruits and Nuts” to much of the rest of America. Brown was known as “Governor Moonbeam.” In many of the Western states in close proximity to California, it is common to see bumper stickers that say “Don’t Californicate ____” (fill in the other state’s name). California is very liberal; its political standard deviation from much of the rest of the country is a large one.

All of this matters because in 2024 we could see an incumbent Democratic vice president from California running for president if Pres. Joe Biden changes his mind and decides not to run. And even if Harris were to run, she likely wouldn’t get the nomination uncontested. A possible opponent? Rep. Ro Khanna, a fellow Californian and unabashed progressive being touted by the Berniecrat wing of the party as a potential candidate to replace Biden.

Now that the Golden State finally has a Democrat in the White House — albeit down the hall from the Oval Office — will its fortunes change with regard to electing a home state Democrat as president? It remains to be seen. But given the history, don’t bet your nest egg on it at one of the state’s Indian casinos.

Garry South, a California-based veteran Democratic political strategist, has managed four gubernatorial campaigns in California, including Gray Davis’s wins in 1998 and 2002, and played a key role in Al Gore’s 2000 winning presidential primary and general election campaigns in the state.