Afterthought no more? California to flex muscles in 2020 primaries

Francine Kiefer

Like the bodybuilders on Venice Beach, the state of California is looking to flex its muscles, but in presidential politics.

Unlike past cycles, when the Golden State has voted near the end of the primary contests – after the nominees were already essentially known – in 2020 California will vote on the March 3 “Super Tuesday,” just after the earliest states have cast their ballots. Not only that, but the top tier of Democratic candidates features one of California's own, Sen. Kamala Harris, setting up the possibility California could slingshot her toward the nomination.

“After years of being a stepchild in the process, California is now poised to throw its weight around,” says Phil Trounstine, co-editor and publisher of Calbuzz.

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But California’s power play may yet fizzle.

The state has tried moving up its primary before, and it didn’t make a decisive difference. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry was already the de facto nominee by the time California backed him in March. In 2008, Republican John McCain had already won New Hampshire and South Carolina when California voted along with 23 other states in a February “Mega Tuesday.” He won most of the primaries that day, going on to win the nomination.

Moreover, while Senator Harris could get a big boost from California, it’s an open question whether her home-state advantage would give her a lock on the state’s huge cache of delegates. California’s Democratic primary is not winner take all; Democrats divvy up the Golden State’s delegates proportionately according to the vote in each congressional district.

“Everyone thinks we’re this monolith and that all of our delegates are a real pot of gold.” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a longtime observer of California politics, now retired from the University of Southern California. “We have proportional allocation. Nobody’s going to win California outright.” In 2016, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both won more than 200 delegates here.

Going up against a native Californian could cause other candidates to essentially write off the state, as happened in 1992, when the Democrats all but conceded Iowa in advance to then-Sen. Tom Harkin, who won its caucuses easily but did not advance to win his party’s nomination. 

The sheer size of California makes it very expensive to campaign in. Spanning the geographic terrain through television advertising is a costly lift for a campaign, and reaching people by social media is costly as well.

“California’s a black hole” for presidential campaigns, sucking up time and resources, says John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “One possible outcome is that the other candidates may say, ‘Look, let’s let Kamala Harris be the favorite daughter, and we can save our money for other states.’ ”

Others say that top-tier candidates will have to contest the state, given its sheer number of delegates – more than half the total number of delegates in the other Super Tuesday states combined. 

Harris has generally won praise for starting strong out of the gate, despite having to walk back a recent town hall comment that she favored eliminating private health insurers with “Medicare for all.” More than 20,000 people rallied for the former prosecutor at her campaign kickoff on Jan. 27 at Oakland’s city hall – blocks from where she was born to her Indian mother and Jamaican father.

Only in the Senate two years, and in the minority party at that, she’s drawn national attention with her sharp questioning of President Trump’s nominees, notably Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She’s also won three statewide races, two for California attorney general and then the US Senate.

While some progressives question her law enforcement record and others wonder about her authenticity, Professor Pitney describes her as Reaganesque in charisma. “I know it’s a weird analogy, but she has a very clear ideological position, and she can be very critical of the incumbent administration – but she does it with a smile,” he says. “The charisma factor is not to be ignored.”

Still, she’s facing formidable opponents, in a crowded field that is getting bigger by the day, with the wealthy former Starbucks chair Howard Schultz hovering as a possible independent candidate and Democrat Joe Biden still undeclared. The former vice president is particularly well-liked in California and a friend of labor.

Robert Shrum, who advised the Kerry and Al Gore presidential campaigns, believes that the foremost question for Democratic voters next year will be who can best beat President Trump. And while he doesn’t know who has the best shot, he does believe his old friend and client Mr. Biden could do it. Biden appeals to base constituencies and could also do well in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where Harris is untested and which come after the California primary.

If Harris is to be successful, he says, she must do well in the earliest states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. If not, Californians may decide they’d rather back whoever is seen as the frontrunner.

“I would argue that California moving up doesn’t diminish the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire but actually increases it,” says Shrum, now at the University of Southern California. “If you don’t come out of the early primaries as one of the three or four people who’s really in contention for the nomination, then I think it will be very hard to do well in California.”

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