How California is influencing the presidential election

After fleeting electoral relevance last March, when California held an earlier presidential primary, the state is again relegated to a cash-rich afterthought on the highway to the White House.

Yet all that cash tells a story of political power — where it is in California and where it isn’t — and of ideological diversity in a state often characterized as homogeneously blue. 

As California senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris introduces herself to a wider swath of American voters, California is integral to that narrative. And Republicans — citing our massive homeless population, chronic wildfires and high taxes on top earners — invoke the state as a cautionary tale of liberalism run amok.

Who are the candidates?

Republican

Donald Trump

For President

Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, but he did not win in California. His two-to-one loss here to Hillary Clinton was the biggest presidential blowout in the state since 1936. Public opinion polls and the 2018 midterm elections suggest that a majority of California voters haven’t warmed to the president in the years since, although he remains popular in many of the state’s less-populated rural areas. But though California’s Democratic leaders may profess to loathe the president — and vice versa — that mutual antagonism benefits both. In Trump, Golden State Democrats have a ready-made villain to rally against — in the Legislature, in the courts and on the campaign trail. In Democratic-controlled California, Trump has an easy shorthand for what he forecasts as the horrors of a Biden-Harris presidency. 

Democrat

Joe Biden

For President

Biden was one of Delaware’s U.S. senators between 1973 and 2009, but most Californians know him as Obama’s VP. The avuncular, elder statesman insider to help moderate Obama’s message of youth and change, Biden played largely the same role in the 2020 campaign: not terribly exciting but, as a well-known septuagenarian white guy, safe and dependable. After three-and-a-half turbulent years under President Trump, Democratic voters seemed more receptive to that message — though less so in California. Here, where Democratic voters skew younger and more progressive, Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders came first in the March 2020 primary. Even so, Biden now holds a wide lead over Trump in California. 

Republican

Mike Pence

For Vice President

The former Indiana governor and congressman, Pence was a logical political choice to be Trump’s running mate in 2016. A born-again Christian with a history of cutting taxes and regulations, restricting access to abortion and privileging religious expression over other civil rights, Pence is a canonical conservative in all the ways that Trump is not. On the ballot, the soft-spoken, earnest former governor offered an insurance policy to Republicans concerned about Trump’s political idiosyncrasies. In the administration, Pence has also played a key role as one of the chief arbiters between Congress and a politically neophyte president.

Democrat

Kamala Harris

For Vice President

Oakland-born and educated at Howard University and UC Hastings College of Law, she catapulted into politics as San Francisco’s district attorney, then the state’s attorney general and then its junior U.S. senator. She has one of the Senate’s most liberal voting records, although critics on the left say that’s at odds with her record as an elected prosecutor here before the advent of Black Lives Matter. If she and Biden win, she would claim many firsts: the first woman to serve as vice president and the first person of color. Already she’s broken a few records for California: the first Golden Stater on a major party’s presidential ticket since Richard Nixon, and the first Democrat ever. 

Contributions by Zip code

Source: Federal Election Commission. Contributions from Californians in 2020. Includes contributions by individuals who have donated more than $200 in a single year.
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