Will California Decide the 2020 Democratic Nominee?

May 17, 2019

by George Messenger


California is no longer the shimmering light up ahead in the distance, but the immediate one, as the Golden State is poised to have a larger than usual role in the 2020 election. It has quickly become the most critical victory for candidates in the Democratic primary, and the outcome will impact ballots throughout the country. In 2017, the California legislature shifted the state’s primary date, which previously had been one of the latest, to March 3rd, the earliest possible day for states not part of the traditional early group. California also has an early voting system, which allows  voters to obtain ballots thirty days before the primary. With such a large state—and for that matter a large blue state—having an early vote, Democratic candidates have an even higher motivation than usual to pursue victory in California for the attention it will garner in subsequent contests.

However, one immediate problem for many candidates will be money. The estimated price tag to run a Democratic presidential campaign in California is about $5 million, a hefty sum that only four or five of the twenty-five current candidates can afford.  In early April, the top four candidates as polls indicated were Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, and Beto O’Rourke, though Pete Buttigieg, who was polling at fifth, has since gained some traction. All will likely be targeting California for fundraising as well as votes, since the state is also home to a number of large Democratic donors and has become perhaps the greatest regional target for fundraising in the Democratic Party.

Here are some additional things to keep in mind as the Democratic battle for California takes shape:

  • If Kamala Harris does not win in California, she likely won’t win the election. Considering her polling across the nation, she will need the support of her home state, particularly such a big one as California, to build the momentum she needs in the subsequent primaries.
  • Pete Buttigieg has been ruthlessly pursuing California, recently spending four days campaigning there. The first openly gay presidential candidate has gathered a large amount of support from the LGBT and millennial communities that populate California’s largest cities, and as Harris takes time to reform her approach to the race, Buttigieg continues to gain support.
  • Housing is among the most important issues for Californians, and with Elizabeth Warren as the only candidate to have truly expressed intent to institute housing reforms in her proposed “rebuilding of the middle class”, this presents a unique opportunity for focus to anyone hoping to increase their support in the state. Gun control, immigration, health care, and education were also listed as fundamental issues by Californian voters in a Stanford poll last November, and while each candidate has touched upon these in some way or another, more focus and concrete suggestions in these matters could also have a large impact.

For Democrats hoping to win the 2020 presidential primary, California has unequivocally become the most important state thanks to its shifted voting date. Because it is the most populous state and has the largest GDP, the fallout from its early primary will have an astronomical effect on the rest of the Democratic voting. Although other early primary states will undoubtedly have an impact as well, look for the top-tier Democratic candidates to focus on California voters and issues in the coming months, as they seek to secure the funding and following necessary to win.

Photo credit: Martin Jambon via Flickr, CC BY 2.0


George Messenger works for the American Principles Project.

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