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California’s 2020 Primary Gold Rush

The Golden State is likely to move its presidential primary to March, a shift that will make money more important than ever.

September 15, 2017

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

America is a nation that follows politics with the passion of Romans flocking to the Colosseum to watch gladiators in combat. But there are peculiar gaps in this collective political obsession—even when it comes to factors that could heavily influence the 2020 presidential race. 

At a time when the Democrats are refighting the 2016 nomination battle with the publication of Hillary Clinton’s latest memoir, the California legislature voted in the wee hours Saturday morning to upend the 2020 political calendar. The legislature’s handiwork would move the California primary from June to early March. Gov. Jerry Brown is widely predicted to sign the measure. As a result of this shift, which has gotten little attention outside the state, Californians would vote for president directly after the four small states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada) that traditionally kick off the primary season.

At this point, many readers are probably stifling yawns and murmuring to themselves, “So what?” It is a common—if wrong-headed—response since the only time that the order of the primaries arouses much public attention is during a presidential year when it is far too late to change the schedule. (I wrote a paper on the presidential selection system for the Brennan Center in April warning of precisely this problem).

Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, summarized the rationale for the scheduling change in a recent op-ed for the The Sacramento Bee. “By moving the primary to March,” Padilla wrote, “California would become more than an ATM for politicians who fly in to raise money and leave without hearing from voters. Future presidential candidates would need to make California a priority by visiting our state early and often.”

Yes, they would—and that is precisely the problem.

The issue is not the admirable diversity of California’s voters or the injustice of the state usually voting after the presidential nominees have been determined by other states. Rather, by jumping near the front of the queue, California will make it likely big money will determine the 2020 Democratic and Republican nominees, if there is a GOP contest.

It is quite possible that serious Democratic candidates will need to spend upwards of $25 million each to compete in this single primary. Frugality is for losers since Democratic Party rules require candidates to get at least 15 percent of the vote in individual congressional districts or statewide to win any delegates.

This week Newsweek, in a comically premature rush to judgment, used the projected new California primary date to ask in a headline: IS KAMALA HARRIS NOW THE 2020 ELECTION FAVORITE TO TAKE ON TRUMP?" Harris, who has been in the Senate for less than eight months, of course, represents California. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is also viewed as a would-be candidate who might benefit from a fast-forward California primary. An early March California primary would also be made to order for a self-funding billionaire candidate like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or environmental crusader Tom Steyer.

It would be ironic if the Democratic Party—which is militant on the topic of overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—unthinkingly opened the flood gates for a presidential nomination fight by and for billionaires.

California has experimented with an early presidential primary before, most recently in February 2008. But the state proved too vast for a decidedly California imprint on the races in either party. As the San Jose Mercury News editorialized two weeks after the 2008 experience, “California’s vote may have ‘mattered’ more than it did in previous years, but voters didn’t see any more of the candidates than in previous years. Nor did the candidates focus on issues of special significance to the state or the region.”

It is worth noting that 2008 was the last presidential race before the dawn of the Super PAC era. While there was no Democratic contest in 2012 and Hillary Clinton never deployed her Super PAC resources against Bernie Sanders in 2016, it is unlikely that this self-restraint will carry over 2020. Especially if the Democratic candidates early in the nomination contest have to contend with the prodigious costs of campaigning in California.

But it won’t be just California. In all likelihood, California’s primary legislation will trigger a land rush of other states trying to get in on the action. On the first Tuesday in March in 2016, nine states (including Texas) held primaries. Add in California and other states that will be screaming for attention—and it is easy to envision that nearly half the convention delegates could be selected in primaries on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. 

Such front-loading of the primaries would be a disaster for democracy. Candidates will need to have tens of millions in hand before the Iowa caucuses (tentatively slated for early February) in order to reserve ad time in key March 3 states.

Moreover, what essentially would be a warp-speed four-week primary race would destroy any sense of deliberation in the selection of a nominee. It often takes months of investigative reporting and biographical excavations for the media to provide an accurate portrait of a presidential contender.

What is happening in California illustrates the inherent weakness of political parties in 2017. Tom Perez, the new Democratic national chairman, neither has the clout nor the inclination to pressure California Democrats to reconsider their heedless rush to move their primary to March. The sad result may be that candidates without personal fortunes or complaint Super PACs will be effectively barred from running serious campaigns for the White House in 2020. 

(Photo: Thinkstock)