By David Siders
Published: Friday, Jul. 29, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Tired of presidential candidates treating California like an ATM, raising vast sums of money here but spending it in states where campaigns cost less and matter more, state officials four years ago agreed to hold the 2008 primary in February.

The early date, they hoped, might focus more attention on the Golden State. “Now California is important again in presidential nominating politics,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the time.

But more than 20 other states moved their primaries up, too, and California, if not the afterthought it was in previous elections, was marginalized yet again.

Now, Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign legislation moving next year’s presidential primary back to June, consolidating it with the statewide primary election.

“We’ve learned that shifting a date doesn’t matter,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “Only if we had a more competitive balance between the two parties, then I think we would play a larger role … Then they simply wouldn’t drop in, parachute in to get money, and leave.”

Assembly Bill 80, by Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, to shift the primary election to June, moved through the Legislature with bipartisan support, though some Republicans said they voted for it reluctantly only because of the cost savings involved.

Political parties have moved to sanction states that hold early primaries, and consolidating the presidential and statewide elections, supporters say, will save state and local elections officials about $100 million.

The move was an easy political call for majority Democrats in the Legislature: President Barack Obama should be easily renominated, while the Republican primary is wide open.

Fong said Thursday that he expects Brown to sign the legislation, if for no other reason than “he’s a penny pincher.”

But three Republican senators voted against the measure, and many Republicans complained it would further minimize California’s role in presidential politics.

Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, said it “takes us out of play,” and Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark, said California will have “no voice when it comes to national elections.”

California voters came closer in 2008 than they had in years to the level of attention typically afforded competitive states, enjoying – or enduring – a flurry of rallies and TV ads before the election.

But the significance of California’s participation isn’t clear. Voters chose Democrat Hillary Clinton, who did not win the nomination, and Republican John McCain, who did. In the Democratic primary, which remained competitive after Super Tuesday, California might have fared better if it had weighed in later, observers said.

“The idea of the early primary was a huge bust,” said Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide. “We’re just out of luck when it comes to affecting presidential politics.”

It isn’t just the date that keeps primary candidates from spending significant time in California. The state’s large size and distance from other states makes it expensive to run here.

“They’re not going to spend their money campaigning in this state when they can get so much more attention winning in New Hampshire and South Carolina,” Quinn said.

Fong’s bill would return California’s presidential primary to June, where it lasted for decades before being moved to March in 1996 and 2000. The February vote in 2008 was the earliest in state history.

Turnout in that election was historically high, but without the presidential candidates at the top of the ticket in June, turnout for the statewide primary plummeted.

Critics in 2008 said the switch to February was motivated at least in part by lawmakers’ hope that a proposition to alter the state’s term limit rules could pass in time for termed-out lawmakers to file for re-election.

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