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 BennetHow Congress is preventing a Medicare bankruptcy during COVID-19 Tom Cotton rips NY Times for Chinese scientist op-ed criticizing US coronavirus response Our national forests need protection — and Congress can help MORE (D-Colo.) is yet another new face potentially in the mix. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program Don't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency Abrams: Trump 'doing his best to undermine our confidence' in voting system 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 Clinton2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program Davis: My recommendation for vice president on Biden ticket Pelosi: Trump trying 'to suppress the vote' with attacks on mail-in ballots MORE did it. Former Iowa Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinErnst challenges Greenfield to six debates in Iowa Senate race Biden unveils disability rights plan: 'Your voices must be heard' Bottom line 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 ClintonState polling problematic — again 4 reasons why Trump can't be written off — yet 'Unmasking' Steele dossier source: Was confidentiality ever part of the deal? MORE’s delegate operation in 2016, said the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainAsian American voters could make a difference in 2020 Budowsky: Trump October surprise could devastate GOP The Memo: Biden seeks to peel older voters from Trump 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 HarrisThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence Crump, attorney for George Floyd's family, endorses Harris for Biden VP pick Davis: My recommendation for vice president on Biden ticket 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 BookerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA rule extends life of toxic coal ash ponds | Flint class action suit against Mich. officials can proceed, court rules | Senate Democrats introduce environmental justice bill Senate Democrats introduce environmental justice bill Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors 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 SandersGOP lawmaker: Democratic Party 'used to be more moderate' 4 reasons why Trump can't be written off — yet Progressives lost the battle for the Democratic Party's soul MORE or one of these candidates gets on a surf board.”