When the first of this year’s two presidential debates transpires a week from now, you may notice something absent from the proceedings: California as a scenic backdrop.

As such, it’s a continuation of national politics as de rigueur as candidates slogging their way through the backroads of Iowa and New Hampshire every four years. Not since 1996 has the Golden State hosted a presidential debate—and only twice so since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon introduced a modern era of televised debates beginning in 1960.

Perhaps you forgot that there was such a gathering in California nearly three decades ago. Then again, it was a mostly forgettable debate as then president Bill Clinton and the late Bob Dole, in a race in which Clinton held a commanding lead, argued over, of all things, which campaign offered the better plan for tax cuts.

More memorable was the presidential debate eight years earlier in Los Angeles, during which the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis wounded his chances of winning the presidency after a dispassionate answer as to whether he’d support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered.

Does this mean that this year’s presidential campaigns harbor a grudge against the Golden State? Far from it—certainly not when President Biden visited Los Angeles last weekend for a star-studded fundraiser, or when Trump was in San Francisco earlier this month to schmooze with tech executives who’ve soured on Biden policies.

But what the campaigns are averse to: flying across the country for a televised spectacle that could just as easily be held in a more convenient location. Indeed, the choice of Atlanta (the headquarters for debate host CNN) is something of a compromise, as it’s north of Trump’s Florida-based campaign and well south of Biden’s DC-based reelection effort.

I began thinking about California’s role in the 2024 presidential election while pondering this storyline: if Biden has a bad debate night, appearing confused and superannuated as he has in recent public appearances, does the Democratic Party panic and look for a new standard-bearer? If so, which Californian stands to benefit, Vice President Kamala Harris or Governor Gavin Newsom (the latter in the audience at Biden’s LA fundraiser)? And, were either to take Biden’s place at the top of the Democratic ticket, does that mean the nation can expect several months’ worth of California bashing courtesy of Trump and his allies?

Before we go any further, a word of caution about delighting in the tarnished condition of the Golden State, home to America’s highest state unemployment rate and an exorbitant cost of living (one recent study gave California a cost index nearly 45% higher than that of Texas when looking at the prices of groceries, healthcare, housing, and transportation).

The caution: what happened to George H. W. Bush’s reelection chances in 1992 when his campaign made a strategic decision to showcase Arkansas—at the time the home of Bill and Hillary Clinton—as a land of the misbegotten (full disclosure: I was an aide on that campaign).

Clinton himself seemingly invited the political attack with the occasional over-the-top statement about his state record ("Show me another surviving governor who got elected five times during the tough times of the ’80s, that got more done and changed more lives and stood up to more interest groups and raised more money for education," he once told reporters).

But Clinton’s gubernatorial record proved otherwise. On his watch, public schools yielded mixed results (more high-school students taking college test exams, but test scores falling). The American Public Health Association, weighing such variables as primary and prenatal care, violent crime, and poverty rates, rated Arkansas as the only state whose public health was “consistently poor.”

And yet Clinton went on to become America’s 42nd president.

Why did the focus on Arkansas fail to convince Americans about Clinton’s leadership deficit? Yes, the economy played an oversize role in undermining the incumbent in the 1992 election, turning voters’ attention away from social and cultural issues that had worked well for Republican candidates in the 1980s. And the contrast between a youthful Clinton (born in 1946) and the more seasoned Bush (born in 1924) appealed to America’s youth vote (younger voters turning out at a 42.8% rate in 1992, versus 36.2% in 1988).

But I have another theory as to why the attack on Arkansas didn’t pan out: it’s not like the Natural State, with a population of only 2.4 million people in 1992 (about the same as Atlanta, Georgia, back then), was a destination state in the early 1990s, much less a manifestation of the American Dream. Painting a bleak picture of a state that’s not a part of most Americans’ travel plans? In retrospect, not a smart approach to changing voters’ minds.

But that wouldn’t be the case in the unlikely event that Newsom somehow were to end up as the Democratic presidential nominee in the current election. California was America’s most-visited state in 2023 (Arkansas was a distant 45th), with the Golden State’s tourism economy generating $150.4 billion in spending last year (however, adjusting for inflation, travel spending in California was actually down 14% from its pre-pandemic peak in 2019).

Why this matters in the outside chance of a Newsom presidential run in 2024: While the world wants to visit California, will it like what it sees? Or do the stark visuals of the state’s tarnished conditions lessen the argument for giving Newsom control of the federal government?  

Case in point: the condition of California’s trademark beaches.

According to the Surfrider Foundation, California is home to three of the 10 “dirtiest” beaches in America (San Diego’s Imperial Beach, Pacifica’s Linda Mar Beach and San Luis Obispo’s San Luis Creek Mouth making the list for most bacteria-contaminated locales). Heal the Bay’s annual report card gave 23 California beaches a “C” or lower for poor water quality in warmer months, putting ocean-goers at greater risk for stomach flu and respiratory infections (though an overwhelming number of California’s 500-plus beaches were deemed healthy). Only 56% of California beaches received good or excellent grades during wet weather, when more sewage finds its way to the shore.

It’s perhaps one reason why California’s electorate is experiencing “June gloom” of a nonmeteorological sort, or so one recent poll suggests. Per this June survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, a majority of Golden State adults (62%) and likely voters (59%) believe their state is headed in a wrong direction (a year ago, 53% of Californians were of a “wrong track” mindset).

Nor are the numbers reassuring for California’s governor. Per the same PPIC poll, after his May revision of the state budget and its overarching question of how California will address its current budget shortfall, a majority of adults (54%) and likely voters (52%) disapprove of Newsom’s job performance. Newsom’s approval rating? A mere 47% among likely voters in a state where Democrats hold a nearly two-to-one advantage among California’s 22 million registered voters.

Small wonder California voters aren’t pleased with their governor. As the July 1 deadline for a new budget looms, there’s an open question in Sacramento as to whether anticipated revenue from a ballot measure taxing health insurance would address doctor’s pay and Medi-Cal, or instead use the money to help whittle down the budget deficit — a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” approach to public policy that suggests a lack of fiscal integrity on the part of the governor and his fellow lawmakers.

And speaking of healthcare, what about medicinal marijuana — and its recreational counterpart? According to this report, companies selling cannabis in California owe the state more than $730 million in back taxes—not what Newsom and other pro-pot politicians imagined when they backed the 2016 ballot measure legalizing the recreational use of cannabis in the Golden State. That’s money California likely will never recoup, as most of those companies no longer are operating.

Bring the presidential candidates to California for a debate? Sure, why not. It’s been long enough.

But maybe a better debate to be had—one that doesn’t involve outsiders—is where exactly the Golden State is headed.

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