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Early primary ratchets up the pressure

Political buttons emblazoned with a message for voters. (Photo illustration: Digital Storm, via Shutterstock)

Because it’s set an earlier date for primary election voting, California is now destined to play a more important role in 2020’s presidential campaigns. Candidates who ignore that new fact of political life will “get their asses kicked,” says one of the state’s top political consultants.

“People in California are voting on the morning of the Iowa caucuses,” added campaign strategist Ace Smith.

California will be joining other states on “Super Tuesday,” when eight states are scheduled to vote in primaries.

Moving the 2020 primary election to March 3 – for years, it’s been in June — means presidential hopefuls must now be cranked up and visible in California in 2019.  The primary also will feature races for the state’s congressional districts.

In a state of nearly 40 million, that requires a heavy commitment of resources – on the ground and in the media. It’s a far cry from the intimate, face-to-face campaigning traditional in early-voting New Hampshire. And that media component will have to include it all – direct mail, television and digital as well as “free media” – news coverage.

California will be joining other states on “Super Tuesday,” when eight states are scheduled to vote in primaries.

Smith, who has headed dozens of California campaigns, including Jerry Brown and other top candidates, is a key adviser to U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is testing the waters for a presidential run and will make a decision over the upcoming holidays. He made the comments at a recent Capitol Weekly conference in Sacramento on the midterm elections that featured a host of the state’s major campaign gurus from both sides of the political divide.

California’s young people are becoming less party-oriented, registering as independents, while women are becoming increasingly more active.

“National political figures have to realize that California is going to be voting early this next time around,” Smith said. “If they don’t realize that, they are going to get their asses kicked.”

Political numbers cruncher Paul Mitchell noted that the state’s primary mail-in ballots go out in just over 14 months. In the world of political campaign consultants, that’s coming up rapidly. He also said mail-in balloting will increase and that means politicians will be forced to campaign even earlier.

California’s polarized political environment likely will remain static, with Democrats continuing to have the most registrants and Republicans lagging behind independents in voter registration, panelists agreed.

At the same time, however, California’s young people are becoming less party-oriented, registering as independents, while women are becoming increasingly more active.

And if you thought Nov. 6 had 11 confusing ballot measures, brace yourself.  Backers of at least seven proposed ballot measures have been proposed or are already circulating, including the repeal of California’s sanctuary state law, a sports wagering initiative, new taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, changes in criminal sentence and repeal of the new no-money bail law, among others.

Today’s digital media means Washington politicians can be visible to constituents all the time.

Political experts agreed at the conference that 2020 would have a heavy list of ballot measures, placed there by special interests hoping to do well because of the expected heavy voter turnout of presidential election years.

Smith also noted that current media coverage is a far different from the way politicians were covered in past years, when a successful candidate for the House or Senate could go to Washington, D.C., for example, and resurface back home only periodically and during re-election campaigns.

Today’s digital media means Washington politicians can be visible to constituents all the time.

What about independent candidates?

Their problem is ballot access, said GOP consultant Rob Stutzman. One presidential possibility is former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has the resources to overcome that challenge and perhaps campaign as a middle-of-the roader, with its appeal to Californians weary of party slash-and-burn.

California might also be awash in homegrown presidential hopefuls.

In addition to Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, we have Rep. Eric Swalwell, Rep. Adam Schiff and billionaire activist Tom Steyer – all Democrats – mentioned as presidential contenders.

And it’s a fact of political life that a California governor automatically becomes mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. Can Gavin Newsom resist the temptation? Especially since he would be midway through his term, giving him a free ride?

California’s move to an earlier primary, signed into law by governor Jerry Brown in September of 2017 is officially the Prime Time Primary Act

Secretary of State Alex Padilla, expressing his enthusiasm for the measure somewhat more elegantly than Smith, said the law “will help ensure that issues important to Californians are prioritized by presidential candidates from all political parties.”


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