California primary line-jump creates 2020 chaos

December 26, 2018

A couple hundred thousand Democrats will brave a cold winter’s night in Iowa on Feb. 3, 2020, attending the caucuses for what has traditionally been the kickoff of the party’s primary season.

But this time around, California will be joining them.

The state has moved up its primary to March 3, looking to get in on the early action. And since the state allows early voting 30 days in advance, it means some people will have already cast live ballots on the same day the caucus kicks off.

Indeed, the same day that Iowans caucus, it’s possible that more people will be casting absentee ballots in California.

That could be a major boost to big-budget candidates who don’t want to compete in the retail politics world of Iowa and New Hampshire, but would rather battle over the airwaves for the bigger prizes looming just weeks later.

But it’s also possible a win in Iowa creates a bandwagon effect, with California voters flocking to the victor.

“Really what the California primary move has done is to create uncertainty,” said Josh Putnam, author of the non-partisan Frontloading HQ website. “Changing the rules changes the game after all. And the system under this new combination of rules has yet to be tested and won’t until 2020, in real time.”

The 2020 primary schedule is not set in stone, and some last-minute jockeying usually occurs.

But the trend has been to compress a season that used to last from the start of the year through June, pushing back the start time and moving up some of the big contests.

That’s what happened with California, where Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill slating the state’s primary election from June to “Super Tuesday” at the beginning of March.

“California’s primary will officially be in prime time,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said at the 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 has been a leader time and time again on the most important issues facing our country including immigration, education, and the environment.”

California has been a hotbed of Democratic activism and the state further bolstered its image as a liberal stronghold in the midterm elections this fall when Democrats trounced the GOP across the board, flipping several House seats, winning the governorship and even claiming the top two places in the U.S. Senate race.

But in presidential primaries, the state had been viewed more as a cash cow of Hollywood donors, than as a player in the primaries.

Now candidates are going to have to decide how much time and money they want to invest in high-cost California, where more than 5 million voters turned out for the late-season primary in 2016, compared to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina the first four primary states which combined for fewer than 800,000 voters total last time.

California also is worth 475 convention delegates in 2016, nearly three times as many as could be won in the four early states combined. It took nearly 2,400 delegates to win Democrats’ nomination in 2016.

Roger Salazar, a California-based party strategist, said a native son candidate could also complicate decisions.

“If there is a Californian involved in the primary process, whether it is Sen. Kamala Harris or [Los Angeles Mayor] Eric Garcetti, or any other Californian, obviously it will have an impact because they are already well-known in the state and sort of have the upper hand with voters,” Mr. Salazar said.

Businessman and progressive-bankroller Tom Steyer also has signaled interest in running.

Home field advantage hasn’t always mattered, though.

Sen. Marco Rubio lost Florida in the 2016 GOP presidential race, while Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania pulled the plug on his campaign to avoid an embarrassing defeat in his political backyard.

David Yepsen, who covered Iowa politics as a journalist for decades, is betting candidates will do better in California if they succeed in early-primary states.

“Results and candidate performances in these tiny states will boost or hurt poll ratings in those large states,” Mr. Yepsen said. “The law of unintended consequences is always in effect when it comes to Iowa efforts to diminish early states often backfire and enhance the importance of them because the only way to compete in big states is to win media in the small, early ones.”

Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democrats, agreed, saying it is nearly impossible to raise enough money to be competitive in California.

“So while I believe there will be some stops there, I just think it puts a lot of pressure on the candidates to end up at the top of the pack in at least one of the early states,” he said.

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