CA120: California is the gorilla in the 2020 primary closet

A voter casts a ballot in the 2016 primary election in Ventura County. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

In 2016 California had a late primary, and it looked like the Golden State would deliver deciding votes in both the Republican and Democratic nominations.

If it weren’t for Trump’s victory in Indiana just weeks before, California would have been the last stand for Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and others who were mounting a late push to block a Trump nomination.

At the same time, Hillary Clinton seemingly was the chosen one, but needed to win the California delegates to seal her nomination and stave off a late surge from Bernie Sanders.

Often an afterthought in presidential politics, California was suddenly on everyone’s radar.

At that time, we gave some tips to these campaigns, including the need to get local talent, understand the Latino vote, be ready to spend big dollars, get good data, beware of the time function in California campaigns and avoid LAX at all costs.

Looking to 2020, California has moved itself to the other end of the nomination timeline.

On Feb.3, 2020, less than a year from now, approximately 200,000 voters in Iowa will participate in a Democratic caucus and, simultaneously, California counties will mail out to voters over 16 million ballots, 75% of whom will be eligible to vote in the Democratic primary.

California might not determine the Democratic primary nominee, but it certainly will have an out-sized impact on who survives the first few months.

So here’s an updated list with six more tips for presidential campaigns as they prepare for 2020:

1. Don’t discount the Golden State
California’s move to a March primary was a gamble that there’s more upside to being an early state influencing the culling of the field of presidential candidates, than in being a long-shot finalist in a large state primary before each party’s national convention.

Authors of the change didn’t guarantee California’s would become the most impactful primary in the country, but their work did establish the state as one of the most important in the early process of narrowing the field.

Leading into California’s March 3, 2020 primary, the states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina will have cast votes for a total of 155 pledged delegates.

California alone will overshadow those states with 416 pledged delegates, and a total of 495 including statewide super-delegates who can vote on a second or any subsequent ballot.

This is the largest haul of delegates and fully a third of the Super Tuesday haul. Hardly something that can be ignored by the presidential campaigns.

Pre-California we could have a dozen serious candidates for the Democratic nomination, but Post-California this will likely be whittled down to two or three, at most.

In addition, California likely will be the ATM of national politics, so building momentum in the state could be critical to fundraising prospects.

Consider this a key part of the “donor primary” particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and the west side of L.A., where we have some of the richest Democratic donors in the country. No candidate wants to tap California fundraising circles without some showing of strength.

2. Get those California staffers!
Experienced California staffers are already on major presidential campaigns. Four key national staffers just came off the Gavin Newsom effort, including Juan Rodriguez and Laphonza Butler, to serve as part of Ace Smith’s team leading the Kamala Harris campaign, Addisu Demissie is headed back to run the Cory Booker campaign, where he previously ran his U.S. Senate race, while Emmy Bengtson was captured by the Kirsten Gillibrand campaign.

Campaigns have a distinct advantage having California operatives: The state has its own political culture, one that can be easily misunderstood by East Coast consultants who couldn’t tell the differences between Angelinos and San Franciscans, and who still refer to the “Hispanic” vote.

If your campaign hasn’t made that California connection, now is the time to develop it.

3. Proportional allocation might not be very proportional at all.
For those who want to see California decide the next presidential election, the current Democratic Party rules have one fatal drawback, and that has to do with how delegates are allocated.

A state can’t simply make its contest “winner take all” and give all the delegates to one candidate.

Delegates are allocated proportionally to the vote percentages at the congressional district level, and statewide delegates are allocated based on the win percentage of the top candidates. This creates an expectation that the results ultimately will be some milquetoast allocation, with every candidate getting a piece rather than one clear winner walking away with a massive haul of delegates.

But there’s a catch – and it could make California at least a ”winner take most” opportunity for the right candidate.

Under the rules, in order to get any delegates, a candidate must reach a 15% primary vote threshold in the congressional district. That threshold doesn’t sound high, and it would be almost a guarantee for candidates to split votes in any two-way race, like Bernie vs. Hillary.

But under California rules, Secretary of State Alex Padilla can place any candidate on the ballot that has shown an interest in running by December of this year, a point at which few will have already dropped out. Given that early date, we are looking at the likelihood of a Democratic primary with a dozen or more candidates on the ballot.

Look at some of the contests from the 2018 primary with a dozen or more candidates, and you’ll see few who exceeded that 15-point margin. In the governor’s race, 28 ran and only two captured more than 15% of the vote. In the 39th Congressional District with 17 candidates, only two reached 15%, and in the 16-candidate 49th Congressional District, only three hit the mark. In the U.S. Senate contest, only incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein reached the threshold.

If we see a dozen or more candidates coming to the Golden State, particularly if the state has one significant leader, we could have a situation where dozens of congressional districts allocate all their delegates to just one candidate, or even where the statewide delegates would only go to the single top vote-getter if the second-place candidate fails to reach that 15% threshold.

It is very unlikely that any candidate will get all of the state’s nearly 500 delegates, but we could see one gaining 300, with the other 200 spread among 10 different campaigns. And that could be enough to make someone a clear leader heading out of Super Tuesday.

4. The growing California Early Vote will overlap, and potentially be influenced by, other early state primaries.
The impact of the primary election timeline on California’s by-mail voters is extremely interesting to consider for each of the leading Democratic candidates. The early primaries of Iowa and New Hampshire could have an outsized impact on the momentum and perceptions of electability, which many believe will be a key factor for voters.

The following table looks at the percentage of all ballots (mail and poll votes) that were cast by Democrats and Democratic primary-eligible independents by time frames that match up to the other state primaries.

The projected 2020 ballots returned are adjusted upwards based on the massive expansion of vote by mail since 2016. In total, California’s 2016 primary saw seven million ballots mailed to Democratic primary eligible voters, and in 2020 that should increase to 14 million — double what we had in the last presidential primary.

Cumulative percentage of total vote, by date.

Date State & (Days to CA Primary) 2008 2012 2016 2020 Projected
Feb 3 Iowa Caucuses (29) 0% 0% 0% 0%
Feb 11 New Hampshire Primary (21) 1% 4% 3% 5%
Feb 22 Nevada Caucuses (11) 11% 22% 20% 25%
Feb 29 South Carolina Primary (3) 21% 36% 33% 40%
Mar 3 Super Tuesday (0) 22% 38% 33% 45%

Ballots are sent to all Californians the same day we will get a declared winner out of Iowa, and a projected 5% of California ballots will already be returned before we find out the winner of the New Hampshire primary a week later. In raw counts, we would expect 250,000 voters in New Hampshire while an equivalent number of votes would have already been cast in California.

After Iowa and New Hampshire, we would expect an additional 20% of California votes to be cast, meaning those early results will be all voters can use to determine how well their preferred candidates might be doing in the early primaries.

By the time South Carolina votes, we could expect to see that 40% of all California ballots will have been mailed. South Carolina is a state that many believe will be critical for Kamala Harris, both in a delegate count and in her ability to gain momentum and establish herself as a front runner. However, it can be expected that 40% of all California votes will be cast before knowing the result that state’s primary.

There are also two Democratic primary debates scheduled for February, so those will occur as Californians are voting, potentially making those the most important and highly watched debates among Golden State voters.

5. Impeding the Independents?
The Democratic primary here will obviously be a fight for the most progressive voters who are interested in turning out. And, as most people know, any non-partisan voter can participate in any presidential primary that is open — which is all of them except the closed Republican primary, which is limited to registered Republicans.

California uses a liberal interpretation of what an independent voter is – it includes the state’s no-party-preference voters, plus anybody registered with a party that doesn’t have actual presidential candidates, like the Reform Party, or people who are registered with goofy parties, like the K9 Party, Pirate Party or Beer Party.

In years past, the process for non-partisan voters to get a Democratic ballot was pretty simple: they just went to their polling place and were asked if they wanted to vote in one of the presidential primaries.

But, with the growth of vote-by-mail, this has gotten much more complicated.

In order to obtain a partisan ballot, independent voters must look in their mailboxes for a little postcard from the registrar, fill it out, and return it before the ballots are mailed.

With the early March presidential primary, counties likely will begin mailing these around the holidays, and they will need to receive them back in January 2020 in order for the voter to receive a ballot with any presidential candidates on it.

This became a big hurdle in 2016, which we covered in an article about the challenges for independents and a follow-up article in which we polled voters to ask if they got a Democratic ballot.

In the end, it appears over a million voters in California cast a ballot with no presidential candidates on it, and a projected 400,000 of them actually had wanted to vote in the Democratic primary, and were eligible, but couldn’t.

While these numbers are eye-popping, the coming 2020 primary should be significantly worse.

As the table below shows, in 2016 there were 4.7 million voters who could request a Democratic ballot, and 2 million of these voters were vote by mail (necessitating the postcard hurdle). For 2020, with the growth of vote by mail and the new counties adopting the Vote Center model for their elections, the number will jump to 5.7 million voters qualified to vote in the Democratic party, 4.4 million of whom will have to request to get their ballot in the mail.

CA non-partisan voters eligible for the 2020 Democratic Primary.

2016 Primary Qualified Nonpartisans (PQDTS) 4,273,171
2016 PQDTS Vote By Mail (VBM) 2,159,985
Current PQDTS 5,707,981
Current PQDTS VBM for 2020 4,434,170

These numbers will grow in the next 12 months as we see the normal course of pre-presidential voter registrations as well as the Department of Motor Vehicles’ voter registration program, which continues to generate hundreds of thousands of new and re-registrations.

Additionally, as we saw with the new DMV registration process, more voters are electing to be no-party-preference, and most of them don’t even realize it.

This means there could be hundreds of thousands of voters who think they are Democrats, but find out they inadvertently became a no-party-preference. These voters would likely dismiss any postcard sent by the registrar, and only realize they got a ballot without presidential candidates when they opened their mail-in ballot.

This issue presents two important challenges for presidential campaigns.

First, if the campaign believes it has a base with these non-partisan voters — whether ethnic, regional, age or gender — the campaign will need to develop strategies for reaching these voters and encouraging them to get a Democratic ballot.

Second, campaigns are going to need to have access to voter databases that maintain flags for voters who actually have requested a Democratic ballot, and these must be updated from each of the state’s 58 counties, likely on a daily basis.  This is not an easy data lift for a campaign that is unprepared.

6. National candidates could employ a targeted approach to California.
While the state might be a “winner takes most” situation for a leading candidate, there are opportunities for lower-tier candidates within the proportional system.

We should expect some presidential candidates targeting just a few districts where they feel they have the best shot. For example, a Biden campaign could feel that their best shots are in the rural Republican counties, where Democratic primary voters might be a bit more conservative, or a Jewish candidate could target districts with high Jewish populations.

A lower-tier candidate that could really adopt this strategy would be Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay presidential candidate of a major party. He could target the congressional districts that were drawn in 2011 with data from Equality California to maximize their LGBT population.

There are a number of congressional seats across the state, in cities such as San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco, West Hollywood and even Latino communities in northeast Los Angeles, that were drawn with an eye on maximizing the LGBT voting strength. These could be a useful target for a candidate who can’t afford to compete statewide.

The California primary will be a daunting challenge for each of the Presidential campaigns. The cost of TV in the Golden State, the dozens of different communities, and the timing of this huge and potentially very expensive primary at the front end of the election cycle all complicate things.

But, for us, it will be fun to see candidates visit Orange County and act like they know something about surfing, visit Tahoe and act like they know something about skiing, or head into the Central Valley and act like they know something about farming, while stumbling through a speech about water and tunnels. It’s about time voters outside of New Hampshire and Iowa got to have all the fun.

Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy firm. 


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