California’s Primary: A Kingmaker, or a Royal Headache?

by Bill Whalen

Stormy weather brought high winds and mountain snow to parts of California last weekend. At the risk of getting out over our skis, it’s time to consider the growing probability of the otherwise improbable every four years: California as an important player in the presidential selection process.

I chose the word “improbable” deliberately, for in recent campaign cycles, California has fallen short of an oversized role in national elections, despite the best efforts of lawmakers and state party leaders.

In 1996, the Golden State’s presidential primary was held on the final Tuesday in March rather its normal starting time of the first Tuesday in June. But Bob Dole had put a mathematical lock on the Republican nomination a week earlier, after a four-state sweep across the Midwest.

In 2000, California advanced a little further, to the first Tuesday in March. But by the time the political circus came to the Golden State, Al Gore was firmly in control of the Democratic contest and George W. Bush had stopped John McCain’s insurgency. The same scenario played out in 2004, with John Kerry dominating the Democratic contest at the time of California’s early March vote, despite earlier predictions to the contrary.

That leads us to the presidential primaries of 2008 and 2016—the common threads being two Hillary Clinton victories (yes, she defeated Barack Obama in California) and two Democratic nominations little affected by the outcomes, as the winner didn’t amass a crushing number of delegates (more on that later).

So what’s different about California in 2020?

Lacking a Democratic “alpha” candidate in terms of money and the perception of inevitability, February’s slate of primaries—Iowa and New Hampshire have voted, Nevada (Feb. 22) and South Carolina (Feb. 29) come next—has yielded surprises. No one candidate has a clear path to the nomination.

Enter California, voting three days after South Carolina and part of the Super Tuesday megaplex of 16 states and territories holding primaries or caucuses that day. The Golden State’s by far the biggest prize on March 3 (415 Democratic delegates, versus only 228 in Texas). And it provides a telling window into what works best in a large state with multiple media markets and a diverse electorate: is it advertising or organization?

In one corner, fueled by a Forbes-estimated $53.4 billion personal fortune (17 times that of President Trump) and the ability to run television ads around the clock in California: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His campaign’s reportedly hired 200 employees in California, dwarfing that of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders (at last count, a team of 80 staffers).

What stands out about the Bloomberg approach is media buys. Per Advertising Analytics, an ad-tracking firm, Bloomberg’s spent over $35 million building a television, radio, and digital presence in California—that figure reported nearly a month before the primary’s official date. Keep in mind: a $2 million–$3 million investment ordinarily gets a candidate a week’s-worth of healthy media buys in the Golden State.

And in the other corner, proudly wearing the “democratic socialist” trunks and banking on the combination of populist organizing and having competed in the last California presidential primary: Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator’s ground game consists of 20 campaign offices (Bloomberg has 11). Sanders’s media budget to date: a $2.5 million television buy for California and Texas—just 1/14 of Bloomberg’s aforementioned spending spree.

What Sanders understands: given the nuances of California’s Democratic primary rules, the contest is an exercise in both quality and quantity. Unlike the Republicans’ winner-take-all rules, Democratic delegates in California are awarded on the basis of the statewide vote and the results in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts. In order to secure delegates, a candidate has to top 15% both statewide and in a district. Long story short: the system rewards candidates who organize efficiently in markets big and small. And that’s the Sanders strategy.

The irony of this: if California Democrats wanted to make their state the true epicenter of Super Tuesday, they should have ditched their proportional system for the ultimate in high stakes: a winner-take-all primary for the richest-possible haul of delegates in a single state.

Otherwise, the Democrats have a system where work doesn’t necessarily match reward.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated in Sanders in California’s June primary by 7.1% (one wag noted that it took California longer to count votes in the summer of 2016 than it did China and Vietnam to wage war in 1979). Sanders received 46% of the statewide vote and 46.5% of California’s 475 pledged delegates.

In 2008, Clinton bested Barack Obama by over 8 points (51.5% to 43.2%). The candidates’ delegate split: 204–166 in favor of Clinton (or 55.1%–44.9%). In 2004, John Kerry won 64% of the statewide vote and 77.8% of delegates (288 of 370). In 2000, Al Gore won almost 80% of the statewide vote and nearly 83% of the delegates (304 of 267).

Change the rules in California in 2020 and how does it affect the Democratic outcome?

The winner would get to take at least 415 delegates to the national convention in Milwaukee (that’s 415 pledged delegates plus an unknown to-be-determined number of “superdelegates”—picked by state party leaders free to choose the candidate of their liking). The “magic number” for winning the Democratic nomination: 1,991 delegates (a majority of 3,979 delegates at stake in 57 contests).

And it could make for more intriguing convention. Let’s revisit the 2008 Democratic nomination fight. Change California’s rules to winner-take-all and Hillary Clinton receives at least 370 of 441 delegates (241 coming from the congressional districts and 129 for her statewide win). Readjusting the final totals that year (2,275.5 delegates for Obama; 1,978 for Clinton) and the new total reads: 2,106 for Obama; 2,144 for Clinton.

One final note about the upcoming California primary: any Silicon Valley tecchie laughing at Iowa’s unappetizing experiment in vote-counting apps is tempting fate—and karma. For California’s voting system could easily end in embarrassment.

For the first time in state history, California voters can register or re-register through Election Day at any polling station. Some counties are ready for the crush (i.e., pre-establishing satellite election offices). Time will tell if all 58 California counties have their act together on primary day.

There’s also confusion with the ballot itself. The Golden State runs a “modified” system wherein independent voters can participate in the Democratic primary (the GOP primary is closed to non-Republicans). But if that indy voter (in California parlance, “no party preference”) chooses to participate by mail (nearly 59% of the 2016 primary tally came from mail-in ballots, versus only 23% in the 1996 primary), they’ll need a nonpartisan ballot unless they’ve indicated in advance that they prefer a Democratic ballot.

That ballot, by the way, is littered with a lot of dead wood. Because voting actually began in California last week, with ballots arriving in the mail the same day Iowans caucused, California’s official ballot is strewn with Democrats now long gone from the race: New Jersey senator Cory Booker, California senator Kamala Harris, and spiritual maven Marianne Williamson.

A third complication: a generous voting timeline. In California, ballots will be honored if they’re postmarked by March 3 and arrive within three days after the election. Election officials have an entire month after March 3 to certify the vote. Where will the Democratic race be by early April 3? Nineteen states and votes will have voted by then, including Michigan (March 10) and Ohio, Illinois, and Florida (all on March 17).

Could California be a presidential kingmaker in a few weeks? Perhaps, if one of the Democratic hopefuls wires the Golden State properly and garners 300-plus delegates to put him or her atop the field.

Then again, that kingmaker could turn out to be a royal headache if, like Iowa, the system isn’t ready for the experiment in democracy.

Bill Whalen, Hoover Institution’s Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow, follows California and national politics and hosts Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at

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