Primary 2020: Here’s what we know about how California voted
This article was updated March 11.
California is notoriously slow to tally its votes (to the frustration of campaigns, voters and political reporters alike). In a state where most ballots are cast by mail, “100% precincts reporting” on Election Night still meant “a whole lot more ballots to count.” According to the Secretary of State, there are more than a million left to tally.
But here’s what we’ve learned thus far, and what we’re still watching. You can follow the results as they continue to come in here.
The Associated Press called California for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as soon as the polls closed.
His apparent first-place finish in the popular vote for the Democratic nomination is a testament to the Sanders campaign’s Golden State focus: He took California’s early position in the primary calendar more seriously than any other candidate. He’s visited the state 41 times, according to the Sacramento Bee, and his campaign set up 23 field offices across the state.
Sanders also relied on the enthusiastic support of young people, Latinos and low-income voters. That’s a risky strategy, as we’ve written, as it depends on blocs of the electorate who typically don’t turn out in high numbers. Clearly, the Bernie base turned out in California — though to what extent, we won’t know for days, if not weeks, to come.
The Sanders campaign made a legal challenge to Los Angeles County, asking a federal judge to keep polling places there open in the face of reported wait times “up to four hours.” But local officials did not change the rules.
And then there’s Joe Biden. The former vice president swept the South, buoyed, so it seems, by older, African American voters and moderates of all stripes who coalesced around Biden after fellow moderates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar made last-minute exits from the race. He also picked up surprise wins in Minnesota and Massachusetts, results that are likely to make official what many had assumed since South Carolina: This is a two-person race.
So was California the skunk at Biden’s Super Tuesday garden party?
In short, we don’t know yet. And the month is young. As we’ve noted before, it takes California election officials up to a month to count all the votes.
What was happening when early ballots were cast? For one, Buttigieg was still in the race. For two, so was Amy Klobuchar. Delve further into ancient history and you might find California voters weighing in just as Bernie Sanders was cleaning up in Nevada, or further back to the nadir of Biden’s election season (to date), when he came fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire.
But as more ballots are counted, Biden’s numbers could improve substantially. According to a survey conducted by California voting data guru Paul Mitchell, more than a quarter of late voters backed Biden.
Wrapping up what might be the largest natural experiment on the effect of money in politics, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg ended the night with little to show for the hundreds of millions of dollars he spent. He dropped out of the contest Wednesday morning and backed Biden.
Entering the race too late to compete in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the billionaire’s path to victory was premised on the idea that with Biden’s continued electoral misfortune and a national GDP-sized ad budget, Bloomberg could convince enough Super Tuesday voters of his moderate electability.
The New York Times had projected that Bloomberg earned 61 out of 4,532 total delegates. Among them: at least four from his only primary first-place finish, in American Samoa, where he came out on top with 175 votes.
Elizabeth Warren peaked in the fall, leading all Democratic candidates in California in September. But she lost ground and never recovered the lead. The senator from Massachusetts came in third in her own state and dropped out two days after Super Tuesday.
Super Tuesday exit polls conducted for the Washington Post indicated that while Biden got about a quarter of Latino voters, Bloomberg and Warren picked up a measly 8% — bad news for any Democrat seeking to win California. Sanders dominated among Latinos and Asian American Democratic voters.
What’s next? Bloomberg and Warren still await final vote tallies to see who cleared the 15% threshold to win delegates statewide and within each California congressional district. The fewer who qualify, the greater the share of delegates that will be awarded to Sanders and Biden.
And for those wondering, President Trump did quite well in the California Republican Primary. He won.
Confused about why your votes actually choose not a presidential candidate but Democratic delegates? We’ve got an explainer video for that.
Bond measures tend to do well in California, but not so for the school bond, Proposition 13.
The Associated Press declared the ballot measure dead and the “Yes” campaign has conceded. The measure won support from only about 46% of voters.
This Prop. 13 always had a few unusual obstacles to overcome.
First, the price tag. Even in a state where voters have never seemed all that reluctant to put big investments on the public credit card, $15 billion is a lot of money. Even if it is for rehabbing schools and universities.
(What is a bond, you ask? We have a video explainer on that, too).
Second, there’s the name. This year’s Proposition 13 was about borrowing money to fix, remodel and expand education facilities. There’s also a little language in there that would have given developers a tax break if they built apartments around transit.
What it wouldn’t have done: Lay a single fiscal finger on property taxes. You’re thinking of Proposition 13 from 1978. Yes, they have the same name and, yes, that’s just a coincidence. Now you know, but it’s possible some voters didn’t — and voted accordingly.
Nonetheless, bonds have a disproportionately high rate of passage with California voters. A CalMatters analysis found that although only 35% of 80 ballot measures between 1998 and 2018 analyzed ultimately prevailed, 82% of bond measures did.
The most recent poll on the subject forecasted a nail-biter.
Read more about this year’s Proposition 13 here.
The most competitive (read: eye-poppingly expensive) races for state Senate and Assembly were not the purple swing seats you might expect. They were safe Democratic seats, soon to be vacated by retiring incumbents, swarming with Democratic challengers and only one or two Republicans.
Fighting in those types of contests is fierce — partly the result of California’s unique top-two election system. Remember, only the first- and second-place finishers move on to the November general election.
In the 57th Assembly district, for example, there were nine candidates, eight of them Democrats. Even in sapphire-blue east Los Angeles County, with so many Democrats in the race, the lone Republican, Jessica Martinez, is leading. That means the one Democrat to nab the other slot is almost guaranteed to win in November.
The 57th has been the single largest target of independent spending in this election cycle. Nearly $3 million was showered on the district, much of it split between oil and other business interests backing Sylvia Rubio and organized labor boosting Lisa Calderon. Calderon currently has a narrow lead.
Two Senate districts in and around Silicon Valley had a similar dynamic: open, safely Democratic and crowded, with special interest money pouring in to pick their kind of Democrat. A moderate or a progressive? An ally of business or labor? In Palo Alto, Democrat Josh Becker is likely to proceed to the general-election ballot against Republican Alexander Glew, which is good news for Becker. In San Jose, two Democrats are likely to make the cut: Dave Cortese, a favorite of organized labor, and former Federal Elections Commission member Ann Ravel
Other questions now being answered:
- Can a moderate Trump skeptic survive in today’s California Republican Party — or will he be expelled by a conservative from within his own party? Assemblyman Tyler Diep in Orange County is narrowly hanging on in ballots counted thus far, but an expected flood of late-voting Democratic ballots could overwhelm him.
- Can a moderate, Trump-skeptic survive outside today’s California Republican Party — or will his right-of-center supporters ditch him for a member of the GOP? Assemblyman Chad Mayes from Yucca Valley, running as a political independent, now seems most likely to face off against a GOP challenger in November.
- Can a moderate critic of organized labor survive in today’s California Democratic Party? Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda, a longtime foe of the state’s teacher unions, is all but certain to make it to the general election. The question is whether his progressive challenger, Marisol Rubio — now trailing in third place — still had a chance to make it there with him. Little-known Republican Julie Mobley, strategically boosted by business interests, appears likely to elbow her out.
And in Santa Clarita, Democrats seem to be the first victims of the dreaded “top-two shutout” scenario.
In California state elections, only the first- and second-place winner in the primary move on to the general election. That raises the perennial possibility that too many candidates from one party will dice up their party’s vote, leaving the two top spots to the other side.
In the 38th Assembly District — seized in 2018 by Democrat Christy Smith, who is now vacating the seat to run for Congress — the two leaders thus far are Republicans: Suzette Valladares and Lucie Volotzky. Democrats are getting 50% of the vote, but split five ways (with 6% going to a candidate who dropped out of the race months ago).
Thousands of ballots are yet to be counted in both races. History tells us that those ballots will be disproportionately Democratic. But that may not be enough to reverse the current trends.
“You look at the gap they have to close and it seems they’re splitting up the vote,” Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc said about the Smith seat.
Ditto in the high desert, where Mayes, the Trump-skeptical former Republican who left the party late last year and is facing off against one Democrat and one Republican, appears likely to head to the November ballot against the GOP challenger, Andrew Kotyuk.
In more unhappy news for legislative Democrats, Antelope Valley voters look like they’re once again propelling Steve Fox into second place in the 36th Assembly District. He would square off against incumbent Republican Tom Lackey.
A former Republican who briefly held the seat in 2012, Fox has also been accused twice of sexual harassment. Democratic operatives viewed Lackey as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the state and had adopted an “anyone but Fox” path to victory. Business interests also presumably saw Fox as the weakest candidate. Together Realtors and new car dealers spent more than $300,000 to boost Fox and oppose another, party-favored Democratic candidate, Jonathon Ervin.
At this point, Lackey is getting 55% of the vote, followed by Fox with 17%. Ervin currently holds 7%.
The gap between Fox and Erwin will be “hard to overcome,” said Bill Wong, the political consultant for Democrats in the Assembly. He blamed the Realtors for Fox’s unwelcome margin. “It’s probably a crime against humanity what they did, but it is what it is.”
But further south, Democrats seem to be in a good position to pick up two Orange County Senate seats, finishing up the congressional sweep they made of the once-red bastion in 2018. In both the 29th and 37th Senate districts, the Democrats in the race won a majority of the vote. That blue vote share is only likely to increase: The outstanding ballots left to be counted are same-day voters and those who changed their registration on Election Day.
And that’s bad news for Republicans. As we reported last year, the Democratic vote share almost always increases between the primary and general elections.
In 2018, Democrats flipped half of the GOP’s California congressional seats, picking up a crushing total of seven new seats. But the problem with winning a district is that you then have to defend it. Those battles will mostly take place in the general election.
Who, from each major party would make it to November?
Which ideological strains or political types were the most electable or most compelling?
And in one race, would either the YouTube shock-jock or the Mueller-probe extra fresh out of federal prison replace the Congresswoman who resigned after nude photos of her were leaked and gleefully disseminated online by righ-twing activists? With many ballots still to be counted, voters appeared to reject both rather resoundingly.
In two reliably conservative districts in east San Diego County and the high desert, Republican candidates competed to out-Trump one another and now appear likely to face Democrats in November.
In the San Diego race to replace GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, who resigned after pleading guilty to misusing campaign funds, Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar is headed for the November election against Republican former Congressman Darrell Issa, who beat conservative talk-show host Carl DeMaio. In the San Bernardino race to replace GOP Rep. Paul Cook, Republican Assemblyman Jay Obernolte beat fellow Republican and former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and appears headed for a November contest against Democrat Christine Bubser.
In the Central Valley, Democratic voters picked their preferred ideological flavor. Rep. Jim Costa, a business-friendly moderate Democrat in a party where business-friendly moderates are increasingly reviled, easily overcame a challenge from Esmeralda Soria, who unsuccessfully tested the proposition that a progressive could win in Fresno.
A similar dynamic played out in the nearby district held by Rep. Devin Nunes — hero on the Trumpian right, villain of the anti-Trump left — who appears safe in his Tulare seat. Democrat Phil Arballo, who raised a boatload of cash and won the endorsement of Nunes’ prior challenger, beat fellow Democrat Bobby Bliatout, who was backed by the area’s progressive activists and the state party.
And last, but certainly not least, there’s the seat formally represented by Katie Hill, before her sudden resignation amid a hostile-work-environment-turned-revenge-porn scandal.
This is not one race, but two: the normally scheduled primary alongside a special election primary needed to fill the rest of Hill’s term.
With 13 candidates running, elected Democrats or party-aligned interest groups had been doing everything in their power to get Assemblywoman Christy Smith over the 50% threshold in the special election. Under state rules, that would make her the automatic winner, avoiding a lower-turnout May runoff, which would likely put the Democrat at a disadvantage.
Alas, with so many Democrats in the field, that didn’t happen. The most high-profile of Smith’s left-flank challenges, Cenk Uygur, the inflammatory founder of The Young Turks, a progressive YouTube show, has received only a pittance of votes.
And Republicans in the race were contending with their own intra-party split. The former incumbent Steve Knight tried to make a comeback over the candidacy of conservative former fighter pilot Mike Garcia. Failing at that, Knight endorsed him. And no one has to worry about George Papadopoulos. Yes, that George Papadopoulos, who trails in the low single digits.
Read more about the Congressional races we’re watching here.