For decades, California has been an afterthought in determining presidential elections. But that’s about to change.
The nation’s most populous state, long a reliable fountain of campaign cash but not a force in selecting who sits in the White House, is casting a long shadow over the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. At least four Californians are nearing decisions on whether to run, and the state’s early, Super Tuesday primary seems certain to heavily influence the trajectory of the nomination fight.
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“California is tired of being the nation’s ATM,” said Kevin de León, a Democratic legislative leader who fell short in his challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein this year. “As the fifth-largest economy in the world, Californians deserve to have a voice on selecting the next president.”
Anticipation that this election will be different, providing California with national clout commensurate with its size, coincides with the state’s role as a beachhead for the anti-Trump resistance. It’s fueled by perceptions both inside and outside the state that California’s brand of unapologetic progressivism has moved into the mainstream of the party after years of being dismissed nationally as a zany laboratory for far-left dreamers.
“A lot of it is the sense and the feeling that Trump is vulnerable,” said Chris Wicker, a Democratic National Committee member from Nevada.
The state’s move up the calendar to March 3 has already forced Democratic presidential contenders to adapt. Aides to prospective candidates said they are plotting strategies to address the glut of delegates awarded by California, including pairing early trips out West to Nevada, which holds its caucuses on Feb. 22, with California stops.
Some are discussing Latino-focused outreach that includes frequent stops in Texas, another Super Tuesday state that may field outgoing Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Obama HUD Secretary Julian Castro.
“For the first time in a major way, Latinos have a real opportunity to play a huge role in deciding early who the Democratic nominee will be,” de León said of the early maneuvering. “Midwest and East Coast candidates will be forced to brush up on their high school Spanish very quickly. West Coast and Southwestern candidates can have an advantage if they play it right — but it’s not automatic.”
The four homegrown, would-be candidates — Democrats Sen. Kamala Harris, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, billionaire impeachment and climate activist Tom Steyer, and Rep. Eric Swalwell — also stand to shape the early contours of the primary.
Harris and Garcetti have teams in place familiar with the state’s uniquely complicated politics. Harris, still in her first term in the Senate, has seen her popularity steadily improve since her upset victory for attorney general in 2010. The political consulting firm that works with her recently brought on top strategist and organizer Laphonza Butler, who has been instrumental in marshaling boots on the ground for the state’s largest labor union.
Garcetti, who in his reelection last year earned more than 80 percent of the vote against 10 candidates, has strong ties with California donors. He’s raised money for himself and local ballot initiatives on transportation and infrastructure, but he’s also serving as a conduit for other state Democratic parties and officials looking to tap into California cash. If he runs, the mayor will base his presidential campaign out of Los Angeles, according to a person familiar with his planning, giving him a foothold in one of the nation’s most expensive media markets.
Several Democrats cautioned that the home-field advantage for the California-based candidates will be limited – they still have to perform well in the early contests and establish themselves as presidential material. As a point of reference, Democrats cite Donald Trump’s resounding victory over Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida in 2016, which finished Rubio after the senator failed to win any of the four early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
“None of these candidates have a Jerry Brown-stature lock on the state,” one rival Democratic strategist said.
Nor do they have a lock on the state’s big-name donors, said another top aide to a probable candidate, who expects those donors to continue showering money on multiple candidates, at least until the field winnows and leaders emerge.
While the high cost of campaigning in California, combined with its proportional awarding of delegates, will favor better-known candidates, it could also propel a surprise winner from Iowa or New Hampshire.
“California is going to be the place where only the top-tier three or four contenders can play and the only alternative is if a dark horse emerges from Iowa or New Hampshire — and then starts raising money to play there,” said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
Still, there’s considerable uncertainty about what impact the early state outcomes might have on the California electorate — or vice versa.
Mail ballots will go out in California just as Iowa Democrats caucus in early February. And Californians will be voting by mail even before New Hampshire’s primary — though that could change should Granite State officials accelerate the date. Given California’s early balloting, “that momentum from earlier states will show up right away,” said Bill Burton, a California-based Democratic consultant and a Barack Obama campaign alum.
On the flip side, late-arriving California ballots counted weeks after Election Day — votes that have historically favored progressives — could rob the eventual winner of the instant momentum of a mega-state win.
Out-of-state Democrats contemplating competing in California have spent years laying the groundwork. Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator who attended college at Stanford, has been traveling to the state to campaign and raise money since he was mayor of Newark. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was a top surrogate for Harris when she ran in 2016 and, between glitzy fundraising events of her own, appeared in Orange County this year to raise money for her former law student, Katie Porter, who won a House seat there.
Former Vice President Joe Biden headlined a fall fundraiser for Feinstein hosted by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and his wife Edy and an event of his own with Hollywood heavy-hitters.
Bernie Sanders has even run a full-blown campaign there, barnstorming the state during his 2016 run, stumping in distant corners that seldom receive visits from presidential hopefuls. He also waded into the debate over statewide ballot initiatives and raised far more money and in 2016 raised far more money from California residents — $17.1 million — than he did from his second-highest state, New York. More recently, he stumped for state legislation, headlined a nurses union convention and starred in an October get-out-the vote rally with East Bay Rep. Barbara Lee.
California’s robust progressive streak puts Sanders on friendly terrain with its receptiveness toward issues he helped elevate in the national debate — including government-run healthcare and free community college.
A strong majority of likely statewide voters, 57 percent — and a whopping 80 percent of Democratic likely voters — say universal health coverage should be a very high or high priority for the state’s incoming leaders, according to a new Public Policy Institute of California poll.
Nearly two-thirds of Democratic likely voters say tuition-free community college should be a very high or high priority, the PPIC survey found.
“An early California primary on Super Tuesday will require people to not just take positions on issues like health care, climate change, student debt, and racial justice, but describe clearly our ability to lead on such progressive priorities,” Steyer, who held a town-hall style meeting in Fresno on Thursday, told POLITICO. “We are no longer an afterthought in the presidential nomination process — we are a rightfully crucial piece to shaping the direction of our party and our nation.”