United States presidential elections are over a year away, but that hasn’t stopped a number of future hopefuls from tossing their proverbial hats into the ring.

This year, an incredibly diverse set of candidates has staked claims to the Oval Office. Some of the leading lights in the Democratic Party include Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and media darling Barack Obama. The major targets on the Republican radar include Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, and at this early stage, it is still anybody’s game.

The first major proving ground for the candidates will be next year’s Iowa caucus, followed shortly after by the New Hampshire primary.

At first glance, it’s hard to see what is so special about these two events. After all, the Iowa caucus isn’t a real primary, and New Hampshire’s vote totals are pretty much insignificant on a national scale. However, these are the first events on the schedule and, as a result, they get the lion’s share of media attention. Candidates that don’t perform well at this stage tend to fall off of the political radar, while unknowns with a strong showing – think Bill Clinton – can make a national reputation for themselves.

This situation gives candidates a bizarre set of incentives. Instead of crafting a campaign message that will appeal to Americans as a whole, candidates are forced to present a message that voters in these solidly white, middle-class states will find appealing. Although the combined populations of Iowa and New Hampshire account for less than two percent of the U.S. total, they exert an inordinate amount of influence in presidential politics.

Things become even more bizarre if you consider California’s role in the primaries. The Golden State is the most populous in the nation and arguably the most ethnically and culturally diverse state as well.

Even though California has a huge vote share and represents a broad cross-section of the U.S., politicians spend hardly any time campaigning here. Why? Because it holds its primary in June, at the end of the election cycle. In 2004, voters in 20 other states had already made up their minds before Californians had cast a single ballot. But this year, it looks as though things are going to be different.

California’s state legislature recently proposed a bill that would move the state’s primary up to Feb. 5, 2008, transforming California into a major player in the primary process. The measure, SB 113, passed overwhelmingly in the State Senate last Tuesday, and it is expected to easily clear the Assembly.

Of course, this brings up the very obvious question of why other large states haven’t already moved their primary ahead of New Hampshire’s. It might be hard to believe, but this is actually against the law.

According to legislation passed by New Hampshire lawmakers in the late 1970s, New Hampshire must hold the first primary. When other states make a move, New Hampshire responds predictably and pushes its primary forward. In 1996, New Hampshire held its primary on Feb. 20, but by 2004, it had moved the date to Jan. 27 in order to compete with other states.

While it is impossible to get ahead of a state as tenacious as New Hampshire, it is possible to get close. Following California’s lead, a number of large states including Illinois, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Indiana and New Jersey have proposed legislation to move their primaries forward as well.

So what does all this political messiness mean for presidential hopefuls? If California gains political clout, this will likely be a hard blow to John McCain, who has spent virtually no time in the state so far. Conversely, Bill Richardson’s Latino background and intimacy with southwestern politics will undoubtedly play well in California. At the same time, Barack Obama’s strong support from the Hollywood elite will be a major factor.

Like it or not, the outcome of the upcoming presidential election is going to be decided largely by the political machinations of the states.

Although it is still too early to call this race, it is undeniable that we are going to see some radical changes in the Oval Office. And for many Americans, that sounds like a breath of fresh air.

Miller is a member of the class of 2008.

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