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California Moved Its Primary Up. What Does That Mean For 2020?

California Gov. Jerry Brown made one of the biggest moves yet in the 2020 Democratic primary last week.

He didn’t declare his candidacy or make a “random” visit to Iowa. He signed a law that moved the state’s 2020 presidential primary from June to March 3 — also known as Super Tuesday, the moniker typically bestowed on the day when the most states are casting ballots after Iowa, New Hampshire and other early contests have ended. The law is aimed at giving Californians more influence over the presidential nomination process (by the time California voted in 2016, the GOP primary was essentially over, and many political observers had seen the writing on the wall for Bernie Sanders’s campaign).

It’s difficult to predict whether the new law will accomplish its goal — so much depends on who runs in each party’s primary and how the vote unfolds. But we can start to tease out some effects that an earlier California primary might have. Here are four questions that seem to come up whenever there’s a shift in the calendar. (We’re focusing on the Democrats in this piece — we don’t yet know if President Trump will draw a primary challenger in 2020.)

Does this move give any candidate an advantage?

If you’ve read the reporting on this story, you might have seen speculation that California’s move might help home-state Democrats who are being floated as potential presidential candidates, such as Sen. Kamala Harris or Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

But it’s way too early to know if either Harris or Garcetti would benefit from an early California primary.

Neither candidate has declared their candidacy, and it’s not a given that either or both will. It’s not uncommon for politicians who generated a lot of presidential buzz to eventually decide not to run. In fact, in a typical election cycle, half the potential candidates included in early polls never enter the race.

Additionally, a home-state advantage doesn’t guarantee success. There are plenty of examples of candidates running away with their native state — say, Bernie Sanders in Vermont in 2016. But there are also cases when a home-state status wasn’t enough, or never came into play. In 2016, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio lost his home state’s primary to Donald Trump. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush didn’t even make it to the Sunshine State, and he polled poorly there regardless. Rick Santorum quit the 2012 Republican primary before the state he represented in the Senate, Pennsylvania, voted, perhaps partly because polls showed a tight race there that could have gone to Mitt Romney. Jerry Brown lost California to Bill Clinton in 1992.

In other words, politicians can’t always take their home states for granted, and there’s no reason to assume Harris (who a quarter of Californians didn’t have a strong enough opinion about to rate favorably or unfavorably earlier this year) or Garcetti (polling on him is sparser, but he’s never been elected to statewide office) will be popular or even well-known enough in California to ensure to a decent performance.

Put simply, it’s too early to tell who, if anyone, gains an advantage from this move.

How different is this calendar than past calendars?

We don’t really know the answer to that question yet. States still have time to move primaries around, and according to political scientist Josh Putnam’s tracker, a number of states haven’t yet decided when they’re going to hold their contest.

California’s new home on the calendar, March 3, looks set to have a ton of delegates up for grabs, as the Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts primaries are also on that date. But Democrats have had some pretty big Super Tuesdays in past contests. The chart below shows the distribution of available delegates over time for the 1992, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2016 Democratic primaries.1

In some contests, there’s one huge day of voting after the first few states go (e.g. 2008), and in other years the voting is more spread out (e.g. 2016, 1992). But in basically every case, there’s a spike in available delegates after the first few states, forcing candidates to transition into a more expensive, national campaign sometime around Super Tuesday.

In that way, California’s new place in the calendar may not end up producing a primary that’s that much different than others we’ve seen before. Super Tuesday is always an expensive day for campaigns, and, as Putnam has pointed out, important states like Texas and Virginia might have made the day costly and consequential regardless of when California voted. And even if other states decide to move their primary to Super Tuesday in an effort to get a say before one candidate becomes the presumptive nominee, we may not be in new territory at all. In 2008, Super Tuesday featured a huge proportion of the overall delegate haul.

Will an earlier California primary mean an earlier end to the national primary?

Probably not — and to see why not, we need to quickly run through some features of the Democratic primary rules

For decades, the Democrats have used a proportional system to allocate delegates to any presidential primary candidate who gets a high enough percentage of the vote. Put more simply, that means that candidates who reach a certain level of support (usually 15 percent) divide up the available delegates based on their performance in the state — so if one candidate gets 60 percent of the vote and another gets 40 percent, they’ll get roughly 60 and 40 percent of the delegate haul. Unlike the Republican primary system (which gives a disproportionate share of delegates to state-level winners), the Democratic system makes it difficult for frontrunners to rack up delegates quickly.

That’s part of why moving California earlier in the calendar probably won’t accelerate the process much. If California is seriously contested by two or more candidates, the winner likely won’t rack up the sort of delegate haul that drives his or her opponents out of the race. And if one candidate is dominant enough to end the contest by mid-March (see Al Gore in 2000), then they probably would’ve been able to sew up the nomination without an early California primary.

Does this increase the odds of a contested convention?

Yes, but only marginally.

I can already hear the groans from some readers. Every four years, someone predicts a contested convention, even though it hasn’t happened recently. And I’m not making that prediction, I’m just pointing out that the way the Democratic primary is structured could push the Democrats towards a convention fight if circumstances were right, and moving California’s primary up slightly increases the chance that the right conditions will arise.

I’ve written more fully on this in the past, but the basic idea is that if the Democratic field has more than two candidates that perform reasonably well, proportional rules may make it difficult for any of them to get more than half of the pledged delegates. For example, suppose three candidates (we’ll pick three totally random names — Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren) got 40 percent, 35 percent and 25 percent of the national vote. If their coalitions were structured so that none of them fell below the minimum threshold too often, proportional delegate rules would probably keep all of them from getting half of the pledged delegates. In that case, a candidate who didn’t come close to getting the majority of the popular vote would likely have to secure the nomination through some combination of winning support from superdelegates (party leaders and elected officials who serve as unbound delegates) and engaging in some serious dealmaking with other candidates.

Moving California up in the calendar might slightly increase the risk of that sort of scenario. If the early states fail to winnow the field to two main candidates, then California’s large delegate haul could be divided between multiple candidates. That was less likely when California held its primary in June — when the contest is typically either over or down to just two candidates.

Again, I’m not predicting a contested convention. I’m not sure how to gauge the likelihood of an event like that while we’re still more than two years out, and when the only noteworthy candidate to announce plans for a presidential run is a random Maryland congressman. But it’s important to think about the way that rules can create weird or unexpected outcomes, because sometimes those strange outlier scenarios actually materialize.

Footnotes

  1. We’re excluding races with an incumbent Democratic president on the ballot, 1996 and 2012.

David Byler is a data journalist who focuses on politics and elections

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