California will put the super in 2020’s Super Tuesday primary

California’s 2020 presidential primary will have more riding on it than di

California’s 2020 presidential primary will have more riding on it than did the 2016 version. (Photo by Robert Couse-Baker)

Super Tuesday has never been as super as it will be in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

California, the most-populous state, has moved its presidential primary up to Super Tuesday, March 3. So has the second-most-populous state, Texas. Six of the 16 most-populous states will be among the nine to hold primaries that day, meaning 28.75 percent of the U.S. population will have a chance to get in on picking the presidential candidates.

And California, which hasn’t voted this early since 2008, has a chance to turn the early days of the election cycle upside down by putting California issues on the table, California’s culture of diversity in the spotlight and, potentially, California politicians center stage, say two experts at UC Berkeley.

"It’s going to change things," UC Berkeley political science professor Rob Van Houweling says. "With California and Texas going that early, Latino votes will probably be weighted more heavily. So, for someone like Julian Castro or another Latino candidate, that could be an advantage.

"And it could be an advantage to a candidate from California like Kamala Harris or Eric Garcetti," Van Houweling continues. "These are politicians who already have name recognition. On the other hand, you can’t count on just name recognition. Donald Trump beat Marco Rubio in Florida in 2016."

California’s jumping of the line means the state’s voters will be at the polls four weeks after the Iowa caucuses and three weeks after the always-first New Hampshire primary. In between, there are just two other electoral events, the Feb. 22 Democratic caucus in Nevada and the Feb. 29 South Carolina Democratic primary. (Republicans have chosen to sit out the Feb. 12-March 2 time frame this year.)

And since California has an early-voting system, primary ballots will be in voters’ hands starting 30 days before the primary, meaning Californians will be able to vote at the same time as Iowa sends its voters to caucus. A slew of convention delegates are at stake. In 2016, the Republican party allotted 179 delegates from California to its convention. The Democrats awarded 475, and the numbers figure to be roughly the same this time around. Those are monster numbers.

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, which are small, very little in the way of presidential retail politics takes place in California. Iowa and New Hampshire voters are used to meeting the candidates, seeing them come through their town. In the Golden State, electioneering is done by paid political ads. Strategists are suggesting it will take at least $5 million to do that in California in 2020.

Name recognition isn’t enough

That shouldn’t be a problem for Harris, who spent her early years in Berkeley while her parents were graduate students at UC Berkeley. She raised $21 million in her Senate run in 2016 and raised $1.5 million in the first 24 hours after her Monday announcement that she was getting into the presidential race.

Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles and a Latino, is another Californian weighing jumping into the Democratic race. He could find having California up early troublesome. He raised almost $4 million in his last mayoral race, although admittedly he didn’t have strong competition. Garcetti and others who have yet to prove they can bring in the vast political donations needed to run for president may find California a bridge too far.

Asked if the expense of campaigning in California would keep the field of Democratic candidates down (it’s not clear how many, or if any, Republicans will challenge Donald Trump), Van Houweling says, "You could see it two ways with so many delegates to be given out."

"In one version, anyone coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire with energy is going to want to be on the air in California, Texas and Virginia when a huge Super Tuesday could winnow some candidates out," he says. "On the other hand, with states like California, Texas and Virginia and their large media markets, there will be a massive money need right away, and not every candidate will have that."

And then there is the fact that California Democrats allot their delegates to candidates based on the percentage of the vote received. UC Berkeley professor of political science Eric Schickler says that process, unlike the winner-take-all system in use in many of the Republican primaries, make the importance of California’s early primary more difficult to assess.

"The candidates, by Super Tuesday, are going to have to have considerable resources to be at all competitive," Schickler says. "With the delegate haul proportional, it’s unclear what difference the state will make if there are three or four viable candidates out there. If so, it’s possible that no one candidate may wind up with the lion’s share.

"So, you could see a scenario where some candidates say, `Maybe I won’t campaign in California at all and rely on word of mouth to get a respectable showing.’ That would save money to campaign elsewhere."

That’s in part because California allocates delegates based on results from each of its 53 congressional districts and not on the statewide vote total. So it’s not enough to wrap up the Bay Area and Los Angeles. There are plenty of rural votes to be won.

California issues will be on the table

The California primary’s move to March means the national conversation in the first month of the primary season will have to change. The talk and the debates will have to focus on issues important to Californians. And California issues are different than those in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"That’s where some of the big impact will be," Van Houweling says. "There could be a lot of talk about, for example, the way property tax was handled in the Republicans’ tax bill. That’s not a huge deal with other early states, but in California it is a very big deal. The same with environmental issues and to what extent California has the ability to do what it wants environmentally.

"Most of that is aligned with that Democrats want to do anyway."

Schickler says all this means "it’s more likely that California will be taken more seriously." He also says it’s too early to know if Democrats will be happy with the primary move they orchestrated.

This isn’t the first time that California has voted early. The state held its 2008 primary in February, also about a month after Iowa and New Hampshire had spoken. Although it was early, it was already a basically a two-person race. Hillary Clinton won with 2.6 million votes and 204 candidates to the convention. Barack Obama got almost 2.2 million votes and 166 delegates and ultimately won nomination as the Democratic candidate before serving two terms as president.

At some points in the past, having California’s primary later meant that the Golden State could help to deliver a decisive delegate win for the Democratic winner in what was generally, by June, a two-person race. Despite the Clinton-Obama battle in 2008, that seems to have changed.

"The worst case for Democrats would be if there are four-five competitive candidates out there; there would be the fear of no one getting enough," Schickler says. "And that could backfire for the party as a whole.

"Kamala Harris would have an advantage, but at same time, that depends on who the other contenders are. But a lot could still happen. Because in terms of delegates, without a winner-take-all, someone could have what would be seen as a significant victory in California without getting an overwhelming number of delegates."

And that could lead to something the United States hasn’t seen since 1952 - a brokered political convention, in which no candidate has enough delegate support to win on the first round of balloting. (If you want to get a cheater’s guide to what a brokered convention might look like, check out The West Wing, Season 6, Episode 22, "2,162 Votes.")

"In the past, having California holding its primary after the field had already been winnowed meant that California hold help put someone over the top," Van Houweling says. "If there are three candidates who all do well, they could all carry a lot of delegates out of California."

In that case, it would be up to other states voting on later dates to put the eventual candidate over the top.

While most of the emphasis in California is likely to be on the Democrats and the expected field of 15 or more candidates, California could have an intriguing look for the Republican Party, too.

"On the Republican side, it could be interesting if there is a solid challenge to Donald Trump," Van Houweling says. "You could say he’s not that popular in California. A good opposing candidate could get some support.

"It will be more exciting to be in California as a spectator this time around."