In summary

Ace Smith, Democratic campaign strategist: If you’re planning on voting for a Democratic candidate for president whom you love, skip this piece. But if like many Californians you’re looking to vote for someone you like in the March 3 primary, and you want your vote to count, read on.

By Ace Smith, Special to CalMatters

Ace Smith is a Democratic political consultant and principal at SCRB Strategies based in San Francisco, ace@scrbstrategies.com. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

If you’re planning on voting for a Democratic candidate for president whom you love, skip this piece.

But if like many Californians, you’re looking to vote for someone you like in the March 3 primary, and you want your vote to count, read on.

The first thing to know is that because this election is ruled by party rules, not every vote is created equally and not every vote will count.

If you vote for a candidate who does not get at least 15% of the vote in your congressional District or statewide, your vote will not count because your candidate will receive zero delegates. That’s why millions of Democratic voters are waiting for the results in South Carolina to cast their votes.

Who’s in the Hunt

  • Bernie Sanders: Clearly, the Vermont senator will walk out of California with a lot of delegates. The question is how many. Because of the arcane accounting system for delegates, Sanders will score an outsized delegate haul, if he runs up a number well over 40% and therefore keeps his rivals to one candidate making the 15% threshold. However, if two or three other candidates pass the 15% line, his delegates and thus his victory will be severely diminished.
  • Joe Biden: Joe Biden is all about momentum. If the former Vice President scores a big victory in South Carolina, he should exceed the 15% with ease.
  • Mike Bloomberg: Because the former New York mayor has spent millions capturing the airwaves and making elections dance on our mobile phones, he is flirting with the 15% number and looks likely to exceed it.
  • Elizabeth Warren: The Massachusetts senator has been averaging around 12.5%. She will need momentum to hit 15%.  Nevertheless, she may have a shot in some Congressional districts.
  • Pete Buttigieg: The former South Bend mayor has made a great impact in the press and in many areas of the state.  The statewide 15% may be hard. But he has a real shot at some district delegates.

Who’s Not in the Hunt

  • Amy Klobuchar: The Minnesota senator has never hit 10% in California. Her prospects for delegates are dim.
  • Tulsi Gabbard: The Hawaii member of Congress did a better job hitting other candidates than hitting any real numbers.  She is a lock for zero delegates.
  • Tom Steyer: Tom Steyer never caught on and will zero out as well.

The California Long Count

While we seem to reenact the famous Tunney/Dempsey long count in every election, the March 3 primary election has the potential to break all records in California.  

That’s because ballots for the Democratic presidential contest are being returned at a historically slow rate. At 5 days out, only 16% have been returned. This compared to four years ago when 23% had been returned.

This late voting trend will lead to three things happening on election day that will likely cause a week or even two week-long count to find out how many candidates are eligible for delegates:

  • Hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots will be dropped off at voting locations.
  • A large number of ballots will be put in post boxes on election day and will arrive to be counted later in the week.
  • Tens of thousands of provisional votes will be cast.

All of these votes take time to verify and count.  My guess is that if a candidate with momentum ends up on election night at 13% he or she will likely hit the 15% threshold in the long count and become eligible for a share of California’s 415 pledged delegates.

The good news in all of this is simple: for the first time since 1968 California truly matters, and will matter in the years ahead.

It will take a few election cycles for the pundits and the campaigns to catch up. But when they do, expect a string of historic presidential elections to play out in the Golden State.  

It is easy to forget that two of the eight presidents elected in the last half of the 20th century were Californians, and many more are to come.

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Ace Smith is a Democratic political consultant and principal at SCRB Strategies based in San Francisco, ace@scrbstrategies.com. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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