LOS ANGELES – With California shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race, the majority of nearly two dozen White House hopefuls have descended on the state this week for a slew of campaign events and a chance to address the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting.
But the frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, is conspicuously absent. He made the decision to skip Friday's campaign cattle call in San Francisco and instead head to the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire to campaign this weekend.
It marks the second time in less than three months that Biden has opted to skip a high-profile forum of White House hopefuls in California, and campaigned elsewhere.
In June, Biden faced the scorn of some California Democratic activists when he passed up the chance to join other 2020 candidates in San Francisco – at a meeting of 3,400 activists at the California Democratic Party Convention – and instead traveled to Ohio to give the keynote speech at a LGBTQ advocacy group gala.
Biden hasn't ignored California. He spent a total of six days in the Golden State during the first four months of his campaign with the bulk of the travel built around fundraisers.
But as he continues to try to carve out a lane as the well-known centrist who gives his party the best chance at beating President Donald Trump, he’s made the strategic decision that there is little upside in playing in the party's more left-leaning settings, analysts say.
Progressive barbs for former VP: Biden faces stiff criticism from Democrats for skipping California convention
“There’s not much for Biden to gain from a high-profile visit in which he gets measured against much more liberal candidates,” said Dan Schnur, a longtime California political strategist who is a veteran of four presidential campaigns and three gubernatorial races in the state. “Biden knows that the results from the first four states are going to have a much greater impact on California primary voters than anything he does out here (now). He needs to win at least two of those early states to even make it out here next March, so better for him to spend the time back east.”
To be certain, California will certainly play a more meaningful role in the nominating process this time around. In 2016, the California primary was held June 7 – so late in the cycle that the state, despite distributing more than 400 delegates, was an afterthought in the presidential nomination process.
State officials have moved the 2020 primary to March 3, giving Californians the chance to voice their preference for the Democratic nominee one month after the first-in-nation Iowa caucus-goers. Thirteen other states, American Samoa and Democrats living abroad will also cast their ballots on the same day as California, the single biggest primary day of the cycle known as "Super Tuesday."
California rising: California's primary is way earlier in 2020. Is that good for Democrats?
Biden's early approach to California – which swings to the left of the rest of the country on immigration, climate and cultural issues – also may offer a glimpse of the tough road that he still needs to maneuver as he courts voters from the more liberal wing of the Democratic party.
Polls show Biden has solid leads in the early-voting states of Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina. A CNN national survey published this week shows Biden has a 14% lead. But polling this month in California, Colorado, Washington and Wisconsin show tight races.
At a Sen. Elizabeth Warren town hall in Los Angeles Wednesday, Bryan Harris, 36, said candidates “playing California now” were being smart. He predicted that a win here would be a momentum builder.
"Conventional politics ended with Obama,” said Harris, who is leaning toward supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders in the California primary. “There's no middle ground in American anymore. If you shoot for the middle, you miss both sides.”
California polls suggest tight race
Biden held a 4-point lead over Warren with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris following close behind, according to a KGTV/San Diego Union Tribune/SurveyUSA poll published earlier this month.
Two other California-wide polls published in July showed Biden, Harris, Sanders and Warren knotted in a close race, including a Quinnipiac University poll that showed California native daughter Harris with a narrow lead over Biden.
He also faces tough competition in Colorado, where an Emerson Poll published this week showed Sanders edging out Biden 26% to 25% percent with Warren at 20%.
In Wisconsin, Warren had 29% of likely Democratic voter support, Sanders 24% and Biden 20%, according to a Change Research poll published this month. Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by 13 points in the 2016 Wisconsin primary before Trump narrowly defeated Clinton there in the general election. Wisconsin is crucial to Democrats' hopes of defeating Trump in November 2020.
In Washington, 19% back Biden, 18% support Sanders and 14% are behind Warren, according to a 24/7 Wall St./Zogby Analytics poll published this month. Sixteen percent of Washington voters surveyed said they were unsure who they would support.
Meanwhile, Biden held a 9-point lead over Warren in the latest Monmouth poll in Iowa.
He held a 19-percentage point lead in South Carolina over his closest rival, Elizabeth Warren, according a Charleston Post and Courier poll published this month. He's also 10 points ahead of Warren in Nevada, according to a poll published by the non-partisan pollster Gravis.
The polling in New Hampshire has been the most mixed for Biden among the four early states. The former vice president led Sanders by 4 points in a Boston Globe/Suffolk poll published earlier this month. Another survey in New Hampshire by Gravis published days later showed Sanders ahead of Biden in the state by 6 percentage points.
In interviews here in Los Angeles, voters said that the earlier primary date has given the state a relevance it deserves. (With mail-in voting provisions, California voters can begin casting their ballots Feb. 3, the same day as Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Sixty-five percent of Californians cast early ballots in the 2018 midterms.)
Darby Aldaco, 47, a chef who lives in Los Angeles, said that much of his struggle with Biden centers on his belief that the former vice president "has nothing new" to offer.
"I like Joe Biden, but I feel his time has come and gone," said Aldaco, who is backing Warren.
Biden has stepped up the pace of his campaign schedule and, in recent weeks, has spent more time in the first four states where Democratic voters will hold the first nominating caucus and primaries next year.
At the same time, he maintains a busy fundraising schedule that has him zigzagging the country in search of campaign dollars he will need to fuel his primary battle and, he hopes, a general election battle with Trump should he win the nomination.
Since July 1, he’s spent 17 days campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
The Biden campaign on Thursday announced it had picked up the endorsements of 39 South Carolina pastors and faith community leaders and the appointment of a prominent pastor, the Rev. Michael McClain, to serve as the director of faith outreach in the Palmetto state. McClain, a well-known environmental activist, leads the Historic Liberty Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Catawba, S.C.
And on Friday, he heads to Hanover, N.H., for a town hall meeting focused on health care, the signature event of a two-day swing through the Granite State. He's expected to make his case for expanding access to health care while cautioning against more aggressive Medicare for All plan favored by rivals, including Sanders and Warren.
While Biden has passed on the high-profile candidate gatherings in California, he was one of four 2020 Democrats to travel to San Diego earlier this month to address UnidosUS, an annual conference of one of the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organizations.
Over the last two months, he's also held fundraisers in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego, while also managing to squeeze in some stumping with average voters. In May, he had a taco lunch with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in which he invited along reporters.
Last month, Los Angeles Supervisor Hilda Solis, who served as labor secretary in the Obama administration, took him out for some campaigning and tamale tasting in the city.
While Biden won't address the DNC meeting in San Francisco, he's dispatched campaign manager Greg Schultz and senior adviser Symone Sanders, according to the Biden campaign. A campaign aide noted that Biden had committed to the New Hampshire events more than six weeks ago and attended the last major DNC cattle call for 2020 candidates in Atlanta in early June.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is registering in fifth place in most national and California state polls, also is skipping the DNC event and heading to New Hampshire to campaign this weekend.
Biden presses electability
Increasingly, Biden is pushing hard on the electability argument – the notion that he’s better placed than any other candidate in the unwieldy pack of more than 20 Democrats to beat Trump.
The idea of electability was at the center of his first major television blitz that began airing in Iowa this week.
The one-minute ad includes a graphic detailing four recent polls that show Biden beating Trump by 9 to 13 points in a head-to-head contest.
“We have to beat Donald Trump,” the narrator intones. “And all the polls agree: Joe Biden is the strongest Democrat to do the job.”
The vice president’s wife, Jill Biden, also offered an eyebrow-raising turn this week to the electability argument while campaigning for him in New Hampshire. “I know that not all of you are committed to my husband, and I respect that,” Jill Biden said. “But I want you to think about your candidate, his or her electability, and who’s going to win this race.”
Jill Biden Democrats:Your candidate may be 'better' on some policies but Joe Biden will beat Trump
But in California the electability argument could ultimately be flawed, some political analysts say.
“It’s a problematic argument to make for two reasons,” said Kimberly Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at Sacramento State University. “Electability is often a euphemism for white men. The other issue for Democrats is that this race is ultimately likely to come down to base strategy and how to motivate folks to come to the polls who are in your coalition but are not high-propensity voters.”
Erin Thiemann, 28, a municipal worker who moved to Los Angeles from Missouri last year, questioned the argument that Biden and others make for a moderate candidate.
"People are looking for someone they will go knock down doors for," said Thiemann, who says she is supporting Elizabeth Warren. "For me, electability is about how to energize people who have not been engaged before.”
'We have to be activists.'
Biden's rivals have also taken aim at Biden's electability argument, say that a play-it-safe approach voters could doom Democrats in their effort to beat Trump.
At a fundraiser in Los Angeles Wednesday, Sen. Cory Booker made the case that it's passion that will determine if Democrats will win the White House in November 2020.
"We have to be activists, artists of activism that wake up the moral imagination of this nation, the call to the consciousness of the country," Booker said.
TJ Ducklo, Biden's national press secretary, countered that growing enthusiasm for Biden among the electorate is "undeniable" and that his message is resonating.
"Voters overwhelmingly believe he is the strongest candidate to take on Donald Trump, but are also genuinely passionate about Vice President Biden's candidacy and his vision for America," Ducklo said.
In the end, Biden's messaging on electability to California Democrats may only need fine tuning, some analysts contend.
The former vice president needs to put greater emphasis on the fact that his core beliefs are the same as Democrats writ large, argues Gary Segura, a California-based pollster and UCLA political scientist.
"Right now, it cedes too much ground," Segura said. "His argument should start with, 'There's a reason I'm the most popular candidate, and it's that the preponderance of the Democratic electorate agrees with me on most issues, and in fact, the preponderance of other Democratic candidates agree with me on most issues.'
"He can better frame the argument by drawing attention to the fact that there is a huge portion of the American public that sees him as the logical, rational alternative to what we've been experiencing under Trump."
Chris Woodyard reported from Los Angeles. Aamer Madhani reported from Chicago
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden: Does 2020 Democratic frontrunner have a California problem?