Why California, Not Iowa, Could Pick the Next Democratic Presidential Nominee

Voters there are going to be casting ballots in February 2020, leaving a number of hard choices to those running for the White House.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Any candidate jumping in to, what is destined to be, a crowded 2020 Democratic primary will confront a stark political reality: the biggest, most expensive state in the country now actually, truly matters.  

California is not a customary playground for presidential aspirants. There are no historic caucus sites or snowy treks through New England hamlets. But operatives in the party are increasingly concluding that voters in The Golden State will have an immense, even oversized, role in choosing the 2020 Democratic nominee.

That’s because, last September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Prime Time Primary Act into law, which moved up the state’s primary date from June to the beginning of March. California also allows mail-in balloting, which means that a sizable portion of its voters will be casting ballots early in February. And thus, a state that sent 475 delegates to the convention in the 2016 presidential election will be witnessing primary voting at roughly the same time as New Hampshire held its first in the nation primary in that last presidential cycle.

“California will become not just a factor but a major, major factor in presidential primaries henceforth,” Ace Smith, California state director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign told The Daily Beast.

The ways in which this could alter the course of the 2020 primary are profound and still being gamed out by operatives and potential candidates as well. At least two California Democrats are rumored to have presidential ambitions. And the consensus among top Democratic officials is that either Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti or Sen. Kamala Harris could stand to benefit from California’s prominence in the 2020 calendar; but probably not both.

“It will give anybody who runs from California somewhat of an advantage or it’s going to kill them,” Howard Dean, former Democratic presidential candidate and former chair of the Democratic National Committee told The Daily Beast. “California is going to be the big winnower.”

California is a voter-rich state, with some 18 million registered. It is also incredibly expensive to traverse and advertise in. For a candidate who doesn’t raise gobs of cash and has little local name ID—a candidate who would need to rely on door-to-door, shoestring-budget campaigning—the state would be better to avoid. For those with some cash on hand, it could be an alluring, albeit high-stakes gamble.

“If you want to get known by television advertising, it’s 5 million bucks a week,”  Smith said. “If you have a built in recognition, you start with something that’s nearly impossible to catch up with.”

Clinton’s first run for president in 2008 could prove to be a case study for what happens in the state when it has even a modicum of primary influence. That cycle, California moved its vote up to Feb. 5. That earlier date led to enormous turnout, the highest since 1980 according to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office (PDF). Neither Clinton nor Barack Obama campaigned heavily there though. And Clinton won despite later losing the nomination.

Eight years later, California held its primary on June 7. By that point, the primary was all but decided between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Turnout declined in the state by about 10 percent overall.

Democrats say there is a strong intellectual and political case for enhancing California’s influence on the Democratic Party’s nomination process. It encompasses diverse cities, immigrant communities and the enormous economy of Silicon Valley. The party views it as a microcosm of the nation as a whole with ample opportunities to appeal to suburban populations that could help win the Democrats back a majority in Congress.

“We have the largest economy in the nation,” Padilla told The Daily Beast. “We ought to have a meaningful say in who future candidates are for the president of the United States.”

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California is also home to a number of districts in which congressional Republicans are in for brutally tough races in 2018. The prospect of high-profile Democrats making conspicuous trips to help campaign for candidates in those districts could have a payoff both in the midterms and down the road in 2020. Certainly, operatives and state officials hope to see presidential hopefuls making the rounds in an attempt to curry early favor with voters and influential local leaders.

“I would urge any presidential candidate who really wants to run in 2020 to help us in California take back Congress,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a freshman in Congress who defeated an eight-term incumbent in California’s 17th District, told The Daily Beast.

Still, there is fear that a more influential California could end up tipping a primary process that already favors better known candidates with deeper pockets. “I just don’t think California is a great place to help any first time, unknown candidate launch their campaign without a lot of lead time and a lot of resources,” said Michael Ceraso, who served as Sanders’ 2016 California state director. Sanders’ campaign, he added “gained life from doing really well in Iowa and New Hampshire which are smaller states where he could hone in and focus.” Sanders, Ceraso said, would have performed even worse in California if it had been moved up to an earlier date in 2016.

National Democrats argue that California’s new spot on the primary calendar won’t diminish the importance of early contests like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. If anything, they stress, it might add significance to those states, providing a lesser-known candidate with a boost in California by building momentum in those earlier contests.

“I personally think there’s some value in having the process start with these states that emphasize retail politics,” Khanna told The Daily Beast. “It gives outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama a chance to get their message out.”

Either way, in what seems likely to be a large field of high-profile candidates, 2020 aspirants will have a major decision to make early on: to bet big on California, to try and win by building momentum in earlier contests, or to cede it entirely to one of the home-staters in hopes of living another day. It’s a set of outcomes that’s bound to create headaches for operatives.

“I think people could easily beat each other up and pick up a lot of delegates because name ID for a couple of these candidates is so high that no matter how many people are running they’re going to own their geographies,” Ceraso predicted. “It would be a pain in the ass if I was running a presidential to navigate that.”