California primary threatens to change 2020 game for Dems

The changing Democratic primary calendar is prompting Democrats to ask whether early caucus and primary states will have the same cache in 2020.

Traditionally, candidates have hunkered down in Des Moines and Manchester, hoping that a victory in the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary would jumpstart their campaigns. 

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But in 2020, voters in California and Texas along with seven other states will head to the polls on March 3 — exactly one month after the Iowa caucuses and just a few days after the South Carolina primary.

The shift could lead some candidates, particularly those focused on winning over African-American or Hispanic voters, to put their focus on California instead of the smaller, whiter and more conservative states.

“The new calendar will turn everything on its head a bit,” said one Democratic strategist who is advising a potential 2020 candidate.

The fact that the crowd of contenders in 2020 might be dozens deep is another factor.

While attorney Michael Avenatti ended his flirtation with a White House bid on Tuesday, Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' Gabbard drives coverage in push to qualify for October debate Bennet launches first TV ads in Iowa MORE (D-Colo.) is yet another new face potentially in the mix. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE separately was in the headlines with comments from Monday night, when he said he was the “most qualified person in the country to be president.”

In a field that deep, it’s possible a candidate could survive middling finishes in the early contests with a strong night on March 3 — particularly if there are dramatically different results in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle, who served as the executive director of the New York state Democratic Party, said that Iowa and New Hampshire will remain important. But he also said the new calendar means victories in those states may not guarantee a good showing later on.

“California has the ability to reset the discussion depending on how those delegates are allocated,” he said.

The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have been good predictors for the Democratic nominee for the White House.

The last time someone lost those two contests and still won the party’s presidential nomination was in 1992, when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonRNC spokeswoman on 2020 GOP primary cancellations: 'This is not abnormal' Booker dismisses early surveys: 'If you're polling ahead right now, you should worry' Words matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump MORE did it. Former Iowa Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinWisconsin lawmaker gets buzz-cut after vowing not to cut hair until sign language bill passed Democratic debates kick off Iowa summer sprint Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE steamrolled the field in his home-state caucuses that year, but Clinton finished a solid second to Sen. Paul Tsongas (Mass.) in New Hampshire.

That result underlines that even in losing an early contest, it can be important to finish strongly and beat expectations.

The same could be true in 2020.

“I still think the early states will matter, but not with the same intensity,” said the Democratic strategist.

In fact, other strategists caution that candidates would be unwise to focus solely on California.

They point to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s strategy during the 2008 Republican race, when he intentionally skipped the early states and focused specifically on Florida, which came much later in the primary season.

It didn’t work.

David Huynh, who led Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP struggles with retirement wave Overnight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE’s delegate operation in 2016, said the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainArizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Biden's debate performance renews questions of health MORE’s (R-Ariz.) strategy in the 2008 cycle was much more fruitful. McCain focused on winning New Hampshire, barnstorming the state for days and believing that this would help lead to a victory 11 days later in South Carolina — which will be the fourth contest for Democrats in 2020, after Nevada’s caucuses.

“You can pick one or two states and focus on those, but you can’t ignore everything and go straight to a large state,” Huynh said. “You’re going to have to have a good showing in the first four states or at least some of them.” 

Another factor with California will be the cost of competition, where ad buys will start at seven figures.

Strategists say it would be infinitely more difficult to play in the expensive state without a running start in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

“The first four contests are still important in helping to shape the field and they’re going to play a pivotal role in shrinking the field,” Huynh said.

Another difference in the upcoming cycle: early voting.

While the 2020 calendar is still in flux, strategists are expecting states like California to begin the early voting process the morning of the Iowa caucus, further changing the primary dynamic.

That could lead candidates to fly from Iowa or New Hampshire to Vermont, Massachusetts, Virginia or North Carolina, which will also have contests on March 3.

Candidates fighting for a strong finish in the Nevada caucuses may also be tempted to head to California early.

“The biggest difference is that you’ll have a lot more people using early voting, and that changes things,” Huynh said. “I think the candidates are going to have to spend more time outside of the first four states and in building a national infrastructure.”

The 2020 changes could help a candidate such as Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? Biden leads in new national poll, Warren close behind in second place MORE (Calif.), whose home state will vote earlier in the process. Outgoing Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) could also have an advantage.

But Iowa is likely to still matter, and a steady stream of would-be candidates, including Harris, Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerMark Mellman: The most important moment in history? Katie Pavlich: The Democrats' desperate do-overs Biden leads in new national poll, Warren close behind in second place MORE (N.J.) and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have all made recent trips to the Hawkeye State.

“The fact that all these candidates are coming to Iowa already shows me it’s going to be significant,” said Steffan Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.

“Whoever wins the Iowa caucuses will make headlines. They’re going to get a lot of free publicity and momentum,” he added. “The only way that happens in California is if Bernie SandersBernie SandersJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE or one of these candidates gets on a surf board.”