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 BennetDemocratic donors stuck in shopping phase of primary Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — CDC blames e-cigs for rise in youth tobacco use | FDA cracks down on dietary supplements | More drug pricing hearings on tap The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Next 24 hours critical for stalled funding talks MORE (D-Colo.) is yet another new face potentially in the mix. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenKlobuchar, O'Rourke visit Wisconsin as 2020 race heats up Biden: 'The America I see does not wish to turn our back on the world' DNC chair defends debate schedule after Biden says election process starts 'too early' 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 ClintonHarris off to best start among Dems in race, say strategists, donors For 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love A year since Parkland: we have a solution MORE did it. Former Iowa Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinIowa’s Ernst will run for reelection in 2020 California primary threatens to change 2020 game for Dems Mellman: Dems’ presidential pick will be chosen in a flash 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 ClintonFemale Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations Klobuchar, O'Rourke visit Wisconsin as 2020 race heats up McCabe's shocking claims prove the bloodless coup rolls on MORE’s delegate operation in 2016, said the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senator says Republicans didn't control Senate when they held majority Pence met with silence after mentioning Trump in Munich speech Mark Kelly's campaign raises over M in days after launching Senate bid 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 HarrisSenate Dems introduce bill to prevent Trump from using disaster funds to build wall Klobuchar, O'Rourke visit Wisconsin as 2020 race heats up Sherrod Brown pushes for Medicare buy-in proposal in place of 'Medicare for all' 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 BookerKlobuchar, O'Rourke visit Wisconsin as 2020 race heats up Sherrod Brown pushes for Medicare buy-in proposal in place of 'Medicare for all' Harris off to best start among Dems in race, say strategists, donors 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 SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSenate Dems introduce bill to prevent Trump from using disaster funds to build wall Klobuchar, O'Rourke visit Wisconsin as 2020 race heats up Sherrod Brown pushes for Medicare buy-in proposal in place of 'Medicare for all' MORE or one of these candidates gets on a surf board.”