Why California could decide the outcome of the 2020 Democratic primaries

Voters in the Golden State don't want to be the nomination finish line. They want to decide the winner.

After California moved up its primary date, Democratic candidates will face a new, major early test. CREDIT: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
After California moved up its primary date, Democratic candidates will face a new, major early test. CREDIT: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In June 2016, Hillary Clinton won the California Democratic presidential primary, officially earning the delegates needed to become the first woman presidential nominee from a major political party. But Clinton’s win in the Golden State, while historic, didn’t change the outcome of the primaries. Her path had become clear weeks earlier.

This time around, California is not content to be the finish line. It wants to be the state that actually picks the winner.

To increase the odds of that happening, officials in the Golden State have moved up its presidential primary election several weeks. And that means for the first time in years, voters in the America’s most populous state could play a major role in picking the next Democratic nominee.

Experts say that the decision to move up the primary date has made it more important than ever that candidates campaign in California — and that they treat the state with the same reverence shown to Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early vote states.


California’s primary used to be one of the last elections on the primary calendar. This year, however, it will take place on Super Tuesday, the multistate presidential primary held after the first four traditional early election states.

Other states holding balloting on Super Tuesday, which falls in February or March of the general election year, are Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia.

Voting by mail, which is very popular in California, will also have a major impact. Ballots next year will be delivered to voters the same day as the year’s first election contest, the Iowa caucus.

“Voters are going to have ballots in their hands as people are casting their ballots [in Iowa and New Hampshire]… You have to treat [California] as if it is happening at the same time,” said Kyle Layman, former Western states political director for the Democratic National Campaign Committee (DCCC). “You can’t treat it as a distinctly Super Tuesday state.”

Another factor is the unique way that delegates are awarded. Democrats allocate delegates proportionally, but in California candidates have to reach a 15% threshold to be awarded any delegates.


Experts say a dream scenario for any candidate would be to capture 25% or so of the California vote, while the rest of the field splits the rest and with only two contenders or fewer getting above the 15% threshold.

In a field as crowded as the current one, that’s a distinct possibility. Despite California’s proportional system, there’s a possibility that one candidate could pick up an enormous number of delegates.

“I do think the early states will help winnow the field,” Christian Grose, a professor at University of Southern California (USC), told ThinkProgress.

Grose noted that even if 10 candidates drop out by the time the California votes, there could still be more than a dozen candidates on the ballot. Dividing up votes among the remaining candidates means “a lot will end up with probably single digits,” he said.

“I think a landslide would be difficult for anybody.”

A recent poll by Change Research found that, although former Vice President Joe Biden has not yet entered the race for the Democratic nomination, he currently leads the field in California with 22%, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) with 21% and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) with 19%. Beto O’Rourke polled in fourth place, with 10%.


It’s far too early to predict what would happen on primary day. But if the poll’s findings were to hold, only Biden, Sanders, and Harris would leave California with any delegates.

No candidate will be watched more closely in California than Harris, the hometown senator, who is seen to have an edge but by no means is assured of winning. Before she can do well in her home state, she’ll have to make a solid showing in Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Nevada.

“Paradoxically, [California’s early primary] may make the early states… more important, not less,” political analyst Dante Scala said, suggesting that the early contests could slow momentum on a frontrunner.

“[I]f someone emerges from this huge field as the candidate to beat, that could make California and the other super Tuesday states king makers — or queen makers — but they may only wind up putting the stamp of approval, so to speak, on someone who [the early states] made the frontrunner,” said Scala, who teaches political science at the University of New Hampshire.

If Harris fails to place in the top three in the early primary states, she may face problems in her home state as well. “California used to be the place to go to raise money,” Grose noted. “It still is, but the candidates also have to get votes now.”

The Golden State is challenging for any candidate to compete in, considering its expensive media market. Personality-based retail politicking so common in the smaller, early states won’t work in a state as big as California.

“Having events where you meet 50 voters, that’s a drop in the bucket [in California] compared to a state as small as New Hampshire where you could actually start influence people with retail events,” Grose said.

Layman, the former DCCC director, said candidates can’t just think about buying advertising to prevail in California. They need to build district-by-district strategies custom-made for the diverse state.

“You’ve got to have a uniquely California plan,” he said.  “It can’t just be blasting out into a state this big, assuming you’re going to hit a critical mass of voters out there.”