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 BennetWould-be 2020 Dem candidates head for the exits The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — What the Michael Flynn news means California primary threatens to change 2020 game for Dems MORE (D-Colo.) is yet another new face potentially in the mix. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenBiden team discussed 2020 run with O'Rourke as VP: report O'Rourke doubles support in CNN poll of Dem presidential race Joaquin Castro says brother Julián is running for president in 2020 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 ClintonOcasio-Cortez: By Lindsey Graham's 1999 standard for Clinton, Trump should be impeached A missed opportunity for Democrats in the border wall showdown Dem pollster blames Gingrich for current partisan strife 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 ClintonLanny Davis says Nixon had more respect for the Constitution than Trump Clinton commemorates Sandy Hook anniversary: 'No child should have to fear violence' Sanders, Warren meet ahead of potential 2020 bids MORE’s delegate operation in 2016, said the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainKevin McLaughlin tapped to serve as NRSC executive director for 2020 Kasich on death of 7-year-old in Border Patrol custody: 'Shame on Congress' Arizona governor eyes several possible Kyl replacements 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 HarrisBiden team discussed 2020 run with O'Rourke as VP: report Pollster says likely Dem 2020 nominee has not emerged in national conversation yet O'Rourke doubles support in CNN poll of Dem presidential race 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 BookerBiden team discussed 2020 run with O'Rourke as VP: report Pollster says likely Dem 2020 nominee has not emerged in national conversation yet O'Rourke doubles support in CNN poll of Dem presidential race 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) SandersBiden team discussed 2020 run with O'Rourke as VP: report Teen quits job at Walmart over intercom, tears into company over employee treatment O'Rourke doubles support in CNN poll of Dem presidential race MORE or one of these candidates gets on a surf board.”