Mighty California, the Super Tuesday kingmaker? Don’t bet on it.

February 21, 2020
By: Edward Lempinen
Six Democratic candidates were on the stage in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Wednesday Feb. 19 for a debate before the Nevada Democratic caucuses. From left to right: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; former Vice President Joe Biden; former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. The event was organized by NBC-TV.
A crowded, fractious field of Democratic presidential candidates is likely to split California voters and reduce the state’s influence on the nomination process, say experts at UC Berkeley. (Image: NBC News)

The Democratic presidential field is divided and public opinion is fragmented and in flux. For California primary election voters, it’s an opportunity to step up on Super Tuesday to cast a vote that could propel one candidate into the frontrunner’s position.

That was the vision of California policymakers in 2017 who moved the state’s primary from its traditional slot in June to Super Tuesday in early March, in hopes of giving the state more influence in choosing their party’s nominee.

Those hopes, this year at least, appear dashed, according to UC Berkeley political experts. Among the challenges: A muddled Democratic field and a divided California electorate that is unlikely to anoint a clear primary winner, and competition from the 13 other states voting on Super Tuesday.

“It’s difficult to see California as being decisive in the way that people who moved the primary forward hoped it would be,” said Jack Citrin, a professor of political science and former director of the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) who has long studied California politics and voters.

Shifting public opinion

As many as six Democratic candidates seem viable coming out of mixed results of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary earlier this month — and with the March 3 election less than two weeks away, California voters are divided among them.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has built momentum here, with support from about a third of likely Democratic voters, but four other candidates each have support from 12% or more among likely voters.

The large field of candidates, the blurry results so far and the shifting public opinion in California make for a “muddled” picture, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley IGS Poll.

Therefore, he reasoned, it’s “very possible that the states that vote after California will have a bigger prominence in terms of determining who the ultimate winner will be.”

State policymakers had a different idea altogether when they passed the Prime Time Primary Act in September 2017. Sixteen months earlier, they had watched as Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination one day before California’s June 7 primary. Clinton ultimately defeated Sanders here by a margin of 53% to 46%, but the conclusion was unavoidable: In choosing the Democratic nominee, California had been irrelevant.

They argued that California needed a bigger role in choosing the parties’ nominees for several reasons: It has a bigger and more diverse population than any other state, its economy is more powerful than any other state and its political donations power the electoral system.

“Historically we’ve been so late in the primary schedule that the nominees for president have been determined by the time Californians go to the polls,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told CNN. “By moving that up, we hope to have a real say in determining the nominees for president of all parties.”

Things are not going according to plan

But Berkeley experts think California is unlikely to have the decisive role that Padilla and others may have sought.

Most obvious is the crowded, fragmented Democratic field. If the contest were between two candidates — think Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton in 2008, or Clinton vs. Sanders in 2016 — then the California vote to choose its 495 Democratic delegates could be decisive.

Further, the state’s primary system does not award all delegates to the winner. Under the Democrats’ complex rules, it’s likely that the trove of delegates will be split among a number of candidates.

And California won’t be alone in the spotlight on March 3. News coverage also will focus on Texas, North Carolina and Virginia — and 10 other states, plus a Democratic caucus in American Samoa. A candidate might do well in California, but still find it difficult or impossible to win the battle of perception in which they emerge as the one and only Super Tuesday winner.

“Those things work against California in terms of having a big headline story about one candidate coming out of the state a clear winner,” said DiCamillo.

Inevitably, California matters

While it may not be dominant, California will nevertheless be highly important on Super Tuesday and beyond.

Henry Brady is the dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy, and he has closely studied presidential elections. California has so many delegates, Brady said, that even in a fragmented field, a strong showing could net a candidate dozens of supporters at the Democratic National Convention this summer in Milwaukee.

So if Sanders has a good day in California, or if former Vice President Joe Biden falls short, that could have a significant national impact, he said. Or perhaps the multi-million-dollar advertising investment here by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could help establish him as a force in the national contest.

Such considerations suggest that California has a number of routes to put its stamp on the final result. Beyond that, though, the experts are cautious about trying to divine the future from 2020’s unusually complex political environment.

“It’s like a giant pinball machine,” said Brady. “Each ball is a candidate and you never know which side they’re going to come down. You know there are probabilities, but you just don’t know the outcome.”