California wants to play a bigger role in shaping the crowded race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. But history hasn’t been on its side.
Presidential hopefuls have long used the Golden State as little more than a glorified bank account, coaxing money from wealthy donors in Hollywood and the Silicon Valley whose money they badly need to fuel campaigns in the much smaller but narrative-driving early nominating states ― especially Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
That’s why California Democratic Party officials strongly backed the state’s decision to move up its presidential primary to the beginning of March, three months ahead of when the balloting occurred in 2016. The change is designed to increase the political clout of the most populous state in the country and the 5th largest economy in the world, a state that has trended even bluer in recent elections.
“California’s primary will officially be in prime time. Candidates will not be able to ignore the largest, most diverse state in the nation as they seek our country’s highest office,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in 2017 after the change was approved.
Moving up California’s primary could incentivize candidates to spend more time in the state to shore up support among its nearly 500 delegates ― whose backing presumably will be critical in sealing the party’s nomination at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. It could also inject hot button California issues into the national debate ― like affordable housing and privacy protections.
The change makes sense thematically, too. California has been on the front lines challenging many of President Donald Trump’s policies, including most recently his emergency declaration seeking to build a wall on the southern U.S. border. California state officials have also clashed with the Trump administration over environmental regulations, wildfire management, the ban on transgender service members and the Affordable Care Act.
But previous efforts to make California more of a focal point in presidential campaigns haven’t quite panned out. In 2008, for example, California officials set their primary date even earlier ― in early February, as part of that year’s Super Tuesday.
But Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina had proved as relevant as ever, serving as gatekeepers that already had reduced what had been a relatively crowded field to just two ― then-Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.). Clinton edged her rival in California’s primary, but that translated into only a slight advantage for her among the delegates awarded by the Golden State. The result did not derail the momentum Obama was gathering as he headed toward claiming the nomination.
Nor did California’s early March primaries in 2004 and 2000 change the contours that had already been set in those years’ presidential races.
“California has not gotten much bang for its buck the previous times they have done this,” Josh Putnam, a political science lecturer at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and close watcher of the presidential nomination process, told HuffPost.
Putnam said he believed the influence California may wield in the 2020 Democratic battle “ultimately boils down to the extent the field winnows going into the primary.”
The hefty number of Democrats who have declared their presidential candidacies or are expected to soon do so almost assuredly will be thinned by the time of California’s March 3 primary. But the question will be by how much.
If a large number remain viable, the state party’s proportional system of allocating delegates could rob the primary winner of a decisive net advantage. So while competing in California is certainly advisable, what happens in its vote may end up less crucial in determining the Democratic nominee than state party officials hope for.
So far, the candidates’ travel itineraries have followed the usual pattern, supporting speculation that California won’t prove the dominant force in the race. Trips to Iowa, which opens the nomination fight with Feb. 3 caucuses, and New Hampshire, which quickly follows with its first-in-the-nation primary, have been de rigueur following a candidacy announcement.
So have forays to South Carolina, which holds the “first in the South” primary on Feb. 29. The several senators who’ve officially entered the Democratic presidential race ― Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar on Minnesota and Bernie Sanders of Vermont ― have all made at least one trip to the Palmetto State with a focus on wooing black voters who are such a key Democratic constituency not only in Sout Carolina but nationally.
By contrast, fewer candidates have made such stops in California, where the population is more diverse, ads are expensive and gaining media attention a challenge.
Despite its size and its economic and cultural clout, no homegrown California politician has been a serious White House contender for several campaign cycles. Harris’ candidacy has changed that, and her camp has touted the moved-up California primary as a key advantage for her.
“Our strategy runs straight through California, and we plan to aggressively defend our home state turf,” Sean Clegg, a senior strategist to Harris, told Politico last week.
Harris has lined up endorsements from Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and dozens of lawmakers representing the state in its legislature or in Congress, hoping to build an insurmountable home-field advantage. A good showing by her in South Carolina, where she already has some strengths, followed by a rout in California just days later would deliver a powerful one-two punch that could catapult her to the nomination.
“If you’re Harris, you’d much rather have California earlier than later,” Putnam said, noting that she “clearly has a head start being from there in terms of organization.”
Still, he cautioned, whether California’s moved-up vote benefits her “depends how well she does in early states.”
Other reasons persist for skepticism about how well Harris will perform in the California primary. She’s less well known in key portions of the state than in her native Bay Area, for example. Some of her rivals have made moves suggesting that they intend to compete there. Warren held a campaign stop earlier this month in the Los Angeles area. Sanders announced last week that progressive Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents a Bay Area district, will serve as one of his campaign co-chairs.
“There are a lot of states where if you have a presidential candidate from that state, it’s kind of considered to be honor,” said veteran California Democratic strategist Garry South. “Californians are a lot more blase about their elected officials.”
Former California Gov. Jerry Brown is a prime example of South’s point. In 1992, Brown was the last Californian ― in either party ― to appear on the state’s presidential primary ballot. The son of a former, well-respected California governor, he’d already served two terms himself as the state’s chief executive. And he’d mounted presidential bids in 1976 and 1980. He had, in short, the resume and name recognition to potentially score a big victory in the ’92 primary ― held in early June ― and deprive then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas of the delegate support he needed to clinch the Democratic nomination.
It didn’t happen. Brown ended losing the primary to Clinton by 7 percentage points.