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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)