More Americans live in California than in any other state, and its businesses drive the world's sixth-largest economy. Yet when it comes to presidential nominees, its residents vote dead-last. That's all about to change, as local lawmakers recently pushed up California's presidential primary election much earlier — a move that could have major repercussions in 2020.
"By the time [candidates] reach California voters, we’re basically an afterthought," California State Senator Ricardo Lara tells Bustle. "The issues are already defined." To that end, Lara authored a bill to move California's primary up to Super Tuesday, the jam-packed day of statewide nominating contests in early March. Governor Jerry Brown signed that measure into law at the end of September.
"It was born out of frustration that we saw in 2016," Assemblyman Kevin Mullin tells Bustle. He authored a companion bill in the State House's lower chamber. "The major party nominees were, for all intents and purposes, selected before California had a chance to weigh in."
Donald Trump won California's Republican primary on June 7, 2016, but by then, it didn't much matter. Trump had locked up the Republican nomination at the end of May. Now that California is awarding its triple-digit haul of delegates in the beginning of March, voters there have a greater say in picking their party's nominee. It is also poised to change the landscape of how candidates campaign, what issues they campaign on, and who rises to the top.
Can The Golden State Be More Than The Fundraise State?
"There’s no guarantee that California will in any way be decisive, but we’re increasing the likelihood that California will count when it comes to shaping the national discussion in the presidential race and it will really force candidates, I think to come here," Mullin says.
That's one major gripe among Californians: That presidential candidates sweep in to fundraise among the millionaires and billionaires of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, but don't talk about issues that are important to Californians, like efforts to combat climate change, build up the state's infrastructure, increase the availability of affordable housing, and address the needs of more than two million undocumented immigrants within the state's borders. As one of the most diverse states in the nation, proponents say moving up the primary date will give minority voters a greater say, and could encourage candidates to court their votes.
"We thought that if we moved the California primary sooner it would give an ability for candidates to take a more moderate to more progressive stance on these issues," Lara says. "I think some of our states that are attuned to our politics would actually want us to move forward so that we’re able to set a different tenor of any futures elections for president."
While state lawmakers are hoping to lure presidential candidates toward campaigning in the Golden State, they recognize the challenges: at 770 miles long, and 250 miles across, the state is difficult and time-consuming to cover in full. Where John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" criss-crossed America's highways, and Chris Christie shook hand after hand during New Hampshire town halls, that kind of mile-by-mile, face-to-face contact doesn't fit California's playbook. Another hurdle: Pricey ad buys would have to span multiple media markets to cover the state.
"No presidential candidate has the money to run a strategic ad campaign in California," Steve Schmidt, chief campaign strategist for McCain's 2008 campaign, tells Bustle. "A person who comes into California with momentum is likely be the candidate the does well out there."
Great News For Political Stars, Native Californians, And Celebrity Candidates
An earlier California primary could give an advantage to to better-known and better-funded candidates. Bernie Sanders, who campaigned hard in California ahead of the 2016 primary, along with Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren could all benefit heading into the 2020 election. The change could also pay dividends to the state's favorite sons and daughters, including Sen. Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, both rumored 2020 contenders, and Governor Jerry Brown, who hasn't ruled out a presidential run.
If Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg make a play for the White House, or Starbucks' Howard Schultz or Disney's Bob Iger dip a toe in the race — heck, even if The Rock jumps into the pool — they're likely to find warm waters on the West Coast. Meanwhile, the move would usher in a new group of Democratic kingmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and former Sen. Barbara Boxer.
"I think will help get us from this vitriol that we’re seeing and this really antagonistic type of candidate that we’re seeing, and would hopefully allow for us to maybe have another female candidate [or] another diverse candidate," Lara says.
Trump's Win Still Stings California Democrats
Besides scrambling the primary calendar ahead of the 2020 election, Democrats in the California State House have also proposed measures to cut off President Trump's path to re-election.
Trump refused to disclose his tax returns during the 2016 election, but California's Bill 149 would require every presidential candidate who appears on the state's primary ballot to submit his or her tax returns to state elections officials. The bill passed the Democrat-controlled State Assembly and State Senate, but Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat who declined to disclose his own tax returns when he ran for governor in 2014 and 2010, vetoed the measure.
"If you have nothing to hide, then you should be able to show your taxes and be able to demonstrate who's really benefiting from this presidency," California State Sen. Ricardo Lara tells Bustle.
Will Other States Follow California's Lead?
"When you think about the jockeying for position in the primary process, it’s important to remember that the more things change, the more they stay the same," Schmidt says. "California moving the primary forward simply moves the dates of the primaries forward because other states will come in in front of them."
There's plenty of time for states to alter their own primary calendars. As long as a state doesn't schedule its primary ahead of the four early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida — the change goes up for approval by the DNC and the RNC. Their rules and bylaws committees will make decisions on the 2020 nominating process next year, and will focus on delegate selection in 2019. Experts say, expect most states to wait until the rules are set to make changes to their own primary calendars.
"What's different this time about California's move is that they've done it much earlier in the cycle than they have in the past," Josh Putnam, the political scientist who runs the Frontloading HQ blog, tells Bustle.
Earlier this year, North Carolina lawmakers tried to permanently move the state's primary from May to March, formalizing a change the state made in 2016. Putnam is keeping his eye on the states that have been willing to move around in past election cycles, or find themselves voting late in the season. "Maryland, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, those my be reasonable candidates to keep your eye on as we get closer to 2019 and legislators start marking these decisions," Putnam says.
Nevada political expert Jon Ralston sees unease in his home state. "We don’t know whether we’re going to maintain our early state status or not," Ralston says. As one of the nation's first five nominating contests, Nevada considers itself "the gateway to the west." Now, it's threatened with losing its clout.
"I just think that we’re going to be overshadowed by California, even if California is a few weeks behind us," Ralston says. "It becomes the 800-pound gorilla in the western states' primaries, and I don’t think any of the western states are going to be thrilled with it."
Kyle Kondik, the Managing Editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says it's too soon to know the impact. When California held an early primary in February 2008, voters sided with Clinton — yet Barack Obama ultimately won the nomination in June.
"It didn't help with anything, at least on the Democratic side," Kondik says. That's more likely to hold true if a lot of candidates run. Because the state doesn't award its delegates on a "winner-take-all" basis, a few candidates could each take home a share, breaking California's political power into pieces.
Gone are the days of locking up the party's nomination after the first four state primaries, Ethan Corson, Executive Director of the Kansas Democratic Party, says. "Now, if you have a a dedicated following or even just a couple really rich people, you can continue on in the nominating process until you hit the states that you perceive to be maybe more favorable to you or to your message."