CA120: California’s March primary had a major impact

A man carries his daughter on his shoulders at a Super Tuesday rally for Joe Biden in Baldwin Hills, Los Angeles. (Photo: Joseph Sohm, via Shutterstock)

Super Tuesday is barely in the rear view mirror.  There are millions of votes to count and the exact delegate allocation for the presidential candidates is still TBD, but there is one clear outcome: a victory for advocates of California’s March presidential primary.

When SB 568 by Ricardo Lara was passed in 2017 there were many detractors with a number of arguments.  So, let’s bring these back and see how the primary fared.

Nobody will actively campaign in California because it was too big and expensive!
There are a number of ways to unpack this, but let’s start with the Sacramento Bee’s candidate tracker. Through the primary, Bryan Anderson tracked 458 presidential candidate visits from 26 candidates for president, including more than 75 for Pete Buttigieg.  This number far surpasses any previous California primary. 

In addition to in-person campaigning, there were massive on-the-ground operations put together by eventual winner Sen. Bernie Sanders and billionaire Mike Bloomberg, along with larger campaign staffs for former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren than most presidential hopefuls have heading into California. 

The Bloomberg campaign hired so many California staff and consultants you couldn’t throw a rock in Sacramento without hitting one of them.

California endorsers were also much more coveted by candidates in this election cycle.  This might not matter much to voters – but there’s not one statewide or high-ranking local elected official that didn’t have a dozen voicemails from presidential candidates or their proxies trying to build Golden State endorsements. 

And it wasn’t just members of Congress and statewide elected officials that became plum endorsers.

California wasn’t merely an ATM in 2020: We saw much of the money raised here turned right around and spent here.

Former Vice President Joe Biden was on the tarmac with Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, Bloomberg often was seen with Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs and Pete Buttigieg repeatedly tapped West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon at events in California and nationally.

And the campaign spending – whoa!

Led by Bloomberg, more than $100 million was spent in California on TV and digital campaigning, dozens of statewide mailings, active phone banking and other grassroots programs funded by these campaigns. 

California wasn’t merely an ATM in 2020: We saw much of the money raised here turned right around and spent here trying to vie for California’s newly important primary electorate.

California will never have a meaningful role in a presidential primary!
If we had asked a dozen California politicos for the most interesting and exciting presidential primary, few could have come up with anything as spectacular as what we just witnessed.

California, as the biggest Super Tuesday prize, completely transformed the race for President. In the end, our state took dozens of candidates, whittled down to about six major contenders, and gave only two tickets out.

This dramatic culling of the field didn’t happen to California voters, it happened because of California voters, and the power the state now holds early in the nomination process. 

In the days leading up to Super Tuesday, establishment Democrats saw three statewide polls, from Capitol WeeklyBerkeley IGS and PPIC that showed Bernie Sanders was likely to dominate the voting in California. 

And it wasn’t just his lead, it was the delegate math.  The fact that none of his competitors was likely to hit the 15% threshold statewide would allow him to earn all of California’s 144 statewide delegates plus congressional-level allocations that would likely hand him upwards of 300 delegates.

This dramatic culling of the field didn’t happen to California voters, it happened because of California voters

This, combined with strong showings in Texas and other Super Tuesday states, could lock up the Democratic primary, or at least gain enough of a lead that he would be the only candidate with a plurality of delegates heading into the Convention.

With this massive delegate haul looming on the horizon we saw a rapid reorganization of the Democratic primary, the consolidation behind Biden, and the “Party Decides” theory of American presidential primaries come to life just hours before Super Tuesday.

Spooked establishment Democrats looked like characters in an Avengers film, coming together to consolidate behind their most electable non-Sanders nominee.  In getting behind Biden, they accomplished a feat that the Republican party was unable to manage in 2016.

And let’s be clear – this dramatic culling of the field didn’t happen to California voters, it happened because of California voters and the power the state now holds early in the nomination process. 

California is losing a chance to decide a presidential race in June!
Yes.  Under the June primary California could play the final deciding role in a presidential primary.  But, this is always a gamble.  It’s much more likely that the June slot ensures we will be an afterthought.  In 2016 we had hopes of deciding both the Democratic and Republican primaries, yet both ended up just being for show.  The delegate math had already crowned both Clinton and Trump.

By any metric – math, importance, money, attention, drama, excitement – this California primary was a winner.

And, the greatest benefit – one that overshadows the rest – we finally get a break! 

Happy Spring Break California consultants.  The primary is finally behind us.

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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