The March primary is coming hot and fast

Illustration of a California voter casting a ballot by mail. (Image: Vepar 5, via Shutterstock)

For Super Tuesday, we are expecting to see an earlier vote than ever before. Over 15 million California ballots are being mailed, mostly today, and we are expecting to see a ton come back in the first week or 10 days.

With three-quarters of the electorate being mailed ballots, we know records will be broken. Based on recent polling, a whopping 75% of by-mail voters say they’re going to vote early. I’m sure they would also say they are going to pay their bills on time and be early to work, but even if this is 60%, this suggests that the early vote will be larger than we have ever seen.

For some campaigns, a late win in Nevada or South Carolina could have muted impact here because they can’t affect the votes that are already in the mail.

Regardless whether they vote in the first week or the last, we will see a higher share of the electorate voting by mail than in any previous California election.

The early vote and presidential contenders
One significant impact of the early vote for the March 3 primary — only four weeks away — will be on the Democratic presidential campaigns.

If California voters cast ballots in person (like we see in many other states), the full force of the results in all of the four early contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — would hit voters before they cast ballots.

But with voting and early state primaries running concurrently, the speed of the voting matters.

For some campaigns, a late win in Nevada or South Carolina could have muted impact here because they can’t affect the votes that are already in the mail.

Just how fast are we talking?

Looking at the 2016 and 2018 primaries, and adjusting for the increased vote by mail, we can make the following projections as to what share of the California electorate will have cast their votes by each of the early primary states. And this is all voters, not just those who vote by mail.

Iowa – Less than 1%. That’s how many California voters, some who got their ballots early, or were military or overseas voters, will have already cast their ballots before we learn the Iowa caucus results.

New Hampshire – About 5% of California voters will cast their votes before learning who won in New Hampshire. This is still a small share of the electorate.

Nevada – A whopping 25% of Californians will have voted by the time of the Nevada caucus. This is the first state with any real diverse ethnicity, and could be an opportunity for a candidate who got boxed out of Iowa or New Hampshire to take a win and revive their campaign.

South Carolina – Coming the Saturday before Super Tuesday, 40%-to-45% of California’s votes will be in before the results of this state will be known. This is a state with a strong African American vote that is seen as a crucial bloc in the Democratic Primary. It will be a strong signal for other Super Tuesday states with similar demographics.

Yes, by the time the four early states results are known, less than 60% of all primary voters will still be outstanding – and that has got to be a sobering thought for the presidential campaigns.

There is a basic theory among California campaigns as the by-mail system has taken hold: If you have someone’s support, get them to vote immediately.

Imagine, for example a candidate winning Iowa, and placing second in New Hampshire (a very real possibility). They then have a long lull but with a momentum advantage during a period when 25% of the California primary voters will turn in their ballots. They or another candidate might win Nevada, extending this to the next 15%-to-20% of California votes being cast.

Then, in this example, a different candidate barnstorms through South Carolina and completely turns the race on its head (another real possibility).

Now, voters see the race differently and their votes from then on reflect it. However, in California 40%-to-45% of the votes are already in. Doing the math, if a candidate got a 10-point bump from winning South Carolina (which would be massive in a multi-candidate contest), that margin is muted to a six-point bump, or less.

While these figures seem high, there’s another reason voting might come even faster than this expectation, and it has to do with the strategic implications of that frustrating process of waiting for all the votes to be counted.

Presidential campaigns pushing the early vote
There is a basic theory among California campaigns as the vote-by-mail system has taken hold:  If you have someone’s support, get them to vote immediately.  

This has two big strategic implications. 

The first is that you’re banking the vote and thereby protecting yourself from anything that could go awry at the end of the campaign.  The second is about how your ground campaign allocates resources. If you are targeting 400,00 voters you want to get to the polls, and you can get 100,000 to vote early, that’s reducing your workload by 25% — meaning you could be more effective in reaching your target, or even grow your universes.

If those two reasons aren’t enough, in this primary there is a big third reason: Momentum.

As we saw in dramatic fashion in 2018, sometimes the votes counted early give different results than those counted late. Several candidates started behind on Election Day, then closed the gap and eventually won, This was dramatically shown when  Democrats picked up seven seats, only two of which they were winning on election night.

The mail-in ballots can be received by the registrar three days after the election if they are postmarked.

This strange shifting of the results as the ballot counting goes on is attributable to the different kind of voters that are in four different waves of ballots that are tallied over the full month that counties have to complete the process.

The first wave is those who vote early – from casting their ballots by mail today, all the way through to those who mail them in before the final weekend. These ballots get signatures verified and tallied, and are waiting to be announced after the polls close.  This year we will also see a lot in this wave coming from early votes cast in vote centers. We call these the “801s” because they start coming out at 8:01 pm on election night.

Who is in this immediate wave? Generally it is an older and more established voting electorate who has voted by mail early in the past. In fact, nearly 40% of those with early voting history will vote in the first 12 days, making these voters a lot of the same folks as we saw voting earliest in 2016 and 2018.

The second wave is those voters who cast ballots in person. These voters don’t need to have additional verification of signatures like mail-in ballots, so they are much easier to process. They will come in hourly in many counties going until midnight or later. At some point we will see the infamous “100% of precincts reporting” and it will feel final. But it isn’t.

The third wave is where we really have to wait. This begins with the bigger counties literally weighing bags of mail-in ballots received over the weekend and through Tuesday, or those dropped off at the polls, and determining approximately how many they must process while helping the state keep a running tally of outstanding ballots.

The mail-in ballots can be received by the registrar three days after the election if they are postmarked. Upon verification of signatures, the ballots in this set are processed and tallied.

Whichever campaign gets their ballots in the first two tranches really determines who “wins” the California primary on Election Night.

Then, the final wave.

This could be more mailed in ballots, even some that were delivered to the wrong county and forwarded to the proper registrar. Here’s also where we see the same-day voters who require the county to verify eligibility and perform the full registration process, while also confirming the voter didn’t already cast a ballot in another county.

This set also includes ballots that were cast provisionally because the voter got a replacement at the polling site but didn’t relinquish their mail-in ballot or ballots with missing signatures, which the counties can seek to remedy by having the voter supply a new one to validate their ballot.

This kind of breakdown of each kind of ballot being tallied over the month-long process can be academic to election nerds, but it is also incredibly important to the campaigns.

Whichever campaign gets their ballots in the first two tranches really determines who “wins” the California primary on Election Night.  They get the benefit of momentum, fundraising, energy and excitement. Then, the third and fourth sets of votes get tallied and someone else could come out on top. This win for the record books is a particularly disheartening victory if another candidate has already run around the country getting all the benefits of the perceived victory on Election Night. And, of course, there’s no refund to the actual winner.

The momentum going into Super Tuesday impacts the poll voters, who’s ballots are counted right away.

This fact is something that’s not lost on the professionals, particularly those who were paying attention to the 2016 Sanders campaign. For the reasons stated above, few in the media or political circles noticed that in the late tallies Sanders actually beat Hillary Clinton by nearly 10%, narrowing his total margin by more than 4-points.

In 2016 Sanders gained on Clinton because his base was younger, more heavily non-partisan, and the types of non-traditional voters who have to do same-day registration or vote provisionally – putting them solidly into the last ballots to be counted. 

This late voting demographic could help Sanders or another candidate this year, but it gets more complicated with the timing of the early primary states.

Earlier, we gave a scenario where someone wins big in South Carolina, and the impact of that win is muted because of all the ballots cast before that result is known. Well, we can now double or triple that candidate’s disappointment by thinking about when those post-South Carolina votes are tallied and reported.

The momentum going into Super Tuesday impacts the poll voters, who’s ballots are counted right away. But not so for the same-day registrants, provisional voters, those who drop off their mail-in ballots at the polling place,  and those with bad signatures, etc. These voters have potentially moved their votes toward the South Carolina winner in this scenario, but their vote won’t impact the results a week or two, or even a full month after Election Day.

Which means that campaigns paying attention (you guys are paying attention, right?) to the big push are getting their voters to vote early. An early vote is going to help when it matters – on Election Night. An early vote is going to be seen on cable news and make the headlines in newspapers around the country. An early vote is going to be influencing voters in the next primary states, increase fund raising, and be an overall driver of momentum.

Solano County which took advantage of a new state law allowing them to mail out their ballots 10 days early.

So, back to the idea of tracking the early vote, we must consider the impact of campaigns pushing voters to vote early.  This could have a big impact on the speed at which we see ballots coming in.

Tracking the vote – and a caveat
Tracking the early voters has been getting increasingly obsessive analysis by people trying to read the electoral tea leaves, and we have fed this obsession with the Political Data Inc.’s Early Vote Tracker which will be in its seventh iteration this year. This year, PDI will actually deliver it to your inbox. You can go to this link and select any district (legislative, congressional or even local districts) and get an emailed report every night of what voters have returned their ballots and their demographic breakdown.  

While tracking the early vote can be informative, it comes with a big caveat: Early vote data can be heavily influenced by the organic elements of a campaign (like voters being encourage to vote early) or simply by the mechanics of the elections, which seem to be ever-changing.

This year, there is no greater example of the mechanics changing the early vote calculations than Solano County which took advantage of a new state law allowing the county to mail out their ballots 10 days early.

Orange County, a key target for both Democrats and Republicans, is mailing ballots to every voter and allowing expanded in-person voting.

If one were to look at the number of returns after a week of voting in Solano it would wildly exceed returns by date from any prior election year, suggesting sky-high turnout. But, of course, what it’s really measuring is a change in the process used by a county registrar.

The same is true for tracking ballot returns in counties that have converted to the Voters Choice Act. In 2018, there were five of these VCA counties which converted to a system of mailing ballots to everyone and replacing traditional precincts with full-feature vote centers. Sacramento, San Mateo, Napa, Nevada and Madera made this change in 2018, and another 10 counties have converted to this in 2020.

Orange County, a key target for both Democrats and Republicans, is one of these, mailing ballots to every voter and allowing expanded in-person voting. They will have 38 locations throughout the county 11 days prior to the election, another 145 locations 4 days out, and over 50 drop-box locations. Drawing a direct line from 2018 or 2016 voting patterns to ballot returns in 2020 in Orange County would be problematic.

So, without a lot of data to go on, when do we think these traditional poll voters in VCA counties will cast ballots?

Looking at the counties that converted to this system in 2018, we can break voters into two buckets: The first is voters who have voted by mail in the past, and, for them, voting patterns in these counties didn’t change from prior years. The second is voters who used to vote at the polls but are now getting mailed ballots. For these, we found the vast majority of them still voting on election day or mailing in the last weekend.

Every election cycle in California seems to have its own twists and turns.  We learn new things about how campaigns are going to run, how voters are going to react, and how the media is going to cover it. 

This year will be like that, on steroids. 

There are just so many moving pieces, such a huge field of candidates, so many unknowns, and a system that is so complex that I often feel bad for national presidential campaign staffers, on a tight budget, with staff spread all around the country, trying to read an article like this and figure out what to do next.

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

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