Californians can be nation’s first to cast 2020 primary ballots—and that’s shaking up presidential race
With the state’s Democratic Party kicking off its convention in San Francisco today, you’ll be able to count at least 14 presidential candidates descending on California this weekend. And for a change, they’re here not just for our money, but for our votes.
California will be sidling up to the front of the electoral line next year, holding its primary on March 3. That’s a break from the last two election cycles, when California voted in early June, long after most candidates had dropped out or seen their chances mathematically eliminated. And given the propensity of most voters here to vote by mail, Californians can fill out their ballots as early as February 3, just as Iowans are heading to the caucuses.
The state’s size alone makes it impossible to ignore: Nearly one in five registered Democrats nationwide is a California. But pushing the state into the first round of primary and caucus states changes the whole makeup of the early electorate in the vital early phase.
The upshot, thanks to California: Candidates will be wooing a population that is not only vast, but more diverse (with a significantly larger share of Latinos and Asian Americans), more urban, and more focused on housing affordability than ever.
The state’s new primary falls on the first “Super Tuesday”—a nation-spanning ballot bonanza in which voters in more than a dozen states vote for their favored candidate to represent their party of choice on the general election ballot in November. While Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada get special permission to hold their contests earlier, doling out their delegates in a slow trickle throughout February, early March is when the floodgates open.
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In 2016, the early primary and caucus states—beginning with Iowa and continuing through Super Tuesday—made up just under 30% of the national population. This year, with the fresh addition of California and North Carolina (but with almost four times the population, it’s mostly California), the total is 45%.
Just on its own, voters in the California Democratic primary will provide more than 1-in-10 of the elected delegates who will be pledged to one of the (now 23) candidates.
According to the most recent Census data, 39% of the state’s residents identify as Latino or Hispanic. To put that in perspective, that adds up to roughly 15 million—nearly five times the entire population of Iowa.
Adding California to the early primary contest means the states in the running on or before Super Tuesday have a combined population that is 22% Latino. That’s compared to 17% in 2016.
Likewise, the California-bolstered pack of early voters are, on the whole, more likely to live in an urban area and less likely to have voted for President Trump in 2016.
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Of course, California voters tend to be whiter, wealthier and more educated than the state’s overall population—all the more so during primary elections. But even if you look at who is most likely to participate in the early primary next year, California stands out.
Based on data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study survey, which was conducted just after the 2018 midterm election, registered Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters in California are less white, more Latino and more likely to be renters than their counterparts in other early voting states.
A more diverse—and more Californian—electorate playing a larger role earlier in the election season could shift the terms of political debate. That was the hope of Ricardo Lara, the state’s insurance commissioner who introduced the bill to move up the state’s primary when he was a Democratic state senator. The change in the electoral calendar would put “California voters in the front seat in choosing our next president,” empowering them to “drive a different agenda at the national level,” he said at the time.
Rather than spend quite so much time tromping through Iowa cornfields paying homage to ethanol, candidates, the theory goes, might feel compelled to head to southeast Los Angeles to talk about affordable housing or to Tulare to talk about water policy.
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But some remain skeptical. John Putnam, who studies campaigns at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and publishes the election website FrontloadingHQ, says the “California effect” in shaping the 2020 discourse is likely to be limited.
The state held its primary early in 2008 and that election was hardly a referendum on Golden State issues, he said. And these days, fewer and fewer voters are motivated by regional concerns.
“More and more, these races are nationalized,” he said. Though a campaign may focus on “lily-white Iowa or lily-white New Hampshire” and give an occasional nod to the federal farm bill or the obligatory photo-op with a corn dog, most issues discussed on the campaign trail are national in scope: healthcare policy, immigration, climate change and, invariably, President Trump.
And new research suggests that Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters in California don’t even hold positions all that different from Democrats elsewhere. With a few exceptions, Democrats in Los Angeles support gun control, oppose restrictions on abortion, want expanded healthcare and disapprove of the president in roughly equal numbers as those who live in Ames, Iowa.
But if the state’s front-loaded electoral role won’t translate to a larger focus on wildfire or homelessness, it’s likely to help California candidates. Or at least one in particular.
A recent Monmouth University poll, found that while California’s U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris was trailing in 4th place among registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in states with later primary elections. But among the early-voting states, she came in second—neck-in-neck with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Across the entire crowded field, Harris saw the largest advantage bump among early voters.
That is largely due to California, where Harris is generally well-liked among Democrats and certainly well-known, said Monmouth poll director Patrick Murray. At this early point in the election cycle, mere name recognition still counts for a lot.
The newest poll, conducted after former Vice President Joe Biden entered the race, shows him surging to the lead in California. The Change Research poll showed him at 30 percent among California Dems—ahead of second-place Sanders and with twice the support of third-place Harris.
That survey also identified the issues state Democrats cite as most important to them: housing affordability led the list at 56 percent, followed by homelessness.
But for those hoping California will be determinative? Murray says not to get your hopes up. The first four states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada—still serve as the gatekeepers.
“Very few candidates are looking past those contests because there’s no point,” he said. A false start in February could lead a potential candidacy to flounder by the time it gets to California, as the bulk of voters throw their support behind the candidates who seem most viable. The fact that California is so large and so expensive is another argument not to spend too many resources here.
So for many candidates, their new fondness for California may still come down to money.
“The reason you might see candidates in California right now is that they’re doing a double dip,” said Murray. “They’re doing a fundraiser and then they’re having a campaign rally, as long as they’re out there.”