Newsletter: This is California's best, maybe only, chance for presidential primary relevance

December 30, 2019 0 By JohnValbyNation

The history of modern presidential politics in California is a woeful tale of unrequited electoral love.

Home to more Americans than any other state, California has seen its elected officials try six times to move the primary election into the early part of the campaign season and force the leading candidates to show up and talk about the issues that matter to Golden State voters.

It hasn’t worked in years past, but it might in 2020. Here’s why.

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Without question, the decision to move the statewide primary to March 3 was key to California’s chances of having a front-row seat for the 2020 campaign. Had the election remained in June, the race would have been all but over by the time voters here weighed in. (There’s that especially painful memory of Hillary Clinton clinching the Democratic nomination just hours before Californians went to the polls on June 7, 2016.)

But two other factors are key to California’s hopes for relevance this time around. First, the field of Democratic candidates is unsettled and could remain so even after the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11. A split decision by those states or surprises in the early contests held in Nevada and South Carolina could force Democrats to look to California.

And they may want to pull out their maps. California is not a winner-take-all primary, as most delegates are awarded by the winner in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts. We’ll come back to the Republican side of the campaign in a moment, but for now, let’s focus on Democrats.

The state will send 495 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, and 55% of them will be chosen by the communities in which they live. Of course, not all Democrats are alike: Last month’s statewide poll conducted for The Times by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found small but noticeable differences in support for the 2020 candidates by region. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, fared best in Los Angeles County and the rural northern parts of the state while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was strong among Democratic primary voters in the Central Valley. Other prominent candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — could be buoyed by their early support in the Inland Empire and San Diego.

Simply put, the region-by-region opportunities are there for more than one Democrat to walk away from California’s primary with enough delegates to make up for losses in other states. Win just some of the smaller congressional districts and a candidate can amass almost as many delegates as the statewide total from Iowa or New Hampshire.

Not that it will be easy for everyone. Even in congressional races, California political efforts often rely on well-funded television advertising. But that could tilt the playing field for someone such as former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The latecomer billionaire hopeful is already blitzing the state’s airwaves with his introductory TV ad and has been doing so for a relative bargain: a review of top-rated stations in select TV markets in California shows Bloomberg paying less than $2,000 for even the most expensive 30-second slots during the holiday season’s local newscasts.

Democratic Party rules state that a candidate must win at least 15% of the primary vote in a California congressional district to receive any of that district’s delegates. In what was basically a two-person contest four years ago, Sanders won 206 of the state’s 475 district-selected delegates. If things are more unsettled this time around, several candidates could emerge with sizable support in California’s delegation at the Milwaukee convention in July.

On the Republican side, there’s potential for California to offer at least a mild rebuke to President Trump in March. But it won’t be easy. Most of the GOP’s 172 state delegates are awarded by congressional district but, unlike Democrats, on a winner-take-all basis: a Republican who wins 51% of the votes in a congressional district will be awarded all of that district’s delegates to the Republican National Convention in Charlotte.

One final wild card is the rapid pace of change in how California conducts elections. Most of the state’s votes are now cast by mail, and ballots will start arriving in mailboxes by the time the votes are tallied in New Hampshire on Feb. 11. For the first time in the upcoming primary, California will allow voters across the state to register at polling places on election day — the kind of voters who may show up to support a late-surging candidate, someone different from the candidates who won those absentee votes weeks earlier.

Put all of this together, and it’s easy to see why this feels like California’s best chance to have a significant effect on the presidential primary season. Then again, if it doesn’t happen in 2020 — with all of these factors at play — it’s hard to see how it will ever do so.


Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) announced Sunday that he has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, vowing he will stay in office and fight the disease with the tenacity that he fought racial discrimination and other inequalities since the civil rights era.

— What exactly would Biden do if Republicans subpoena his testimony in the president’s impeachment trial? The former vice president has been trying to clarify his position.

— New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has fallen well short of expectations as his message, grounded in sweetness and light, collides with the sentiments of Democrats who want to see Trump not just beaten in 2020 but battered.

— White evangelicals, whose numbers are declining, have long been a reliable voting bloc for Republicans, and a large majority continue to support Trump. Black evangelicals have historically leaned Democratic. But among Latino evangelicals, who often identify as politically independent, support for the parties, and for Trump, is more ambiguous.


— California will ring in 2020 with hundreds of new state laws addressing a range of issues including limits on semiautomatic gun purchases, more protections against high-interest loans, increased pay for low-wage jobs and the end of touring circus shows featuring exotic animals. Here’s our quick, shareable summary.

— A sweeping new law that aims to rewrite the rules of the internet in California is set to go into effect on Jan. 1. The only problem: Nobody’s sure how the new rules work.

— Two years after California began licensing pot shops, the industry remains so outmatched by the black market that a state panel recently joined some legalization supporters in calling for significant changes — perhaps turning again to voters to address the problems.

— California’s campaign watchdog panel has reversed itself and restored a rule prohibiting its members from giving to federal political candidates, citing concerns that those donations might undermine an appearance of nonpartisanship crucial to its mission.

— The California Supreme Court has decided psychotherapists can challenge a 2014 law requiring them to report patients who reveal they viewed child pornography.


Essential Politics is written by Sacramento bureau chief John Myers on Mondays and Washington bureau chief David Lauter on Fridays.

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