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Why California leapfrogged the 2020 primary schedule

In politics and in life, timing is everything.And that's especially true when voters head to the poll...

Posted: Dec 19, 2018 2:14 PM
Updated: Dec 19, 2018 2:14 PM

In politics and in life, timing is everything.

And that's especially true when voters head to the polls in 2020.

Alex Padilla

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This cycle, California has made waves by moving up its primary date from June to March -- on Super Tuesday.

California's June date meant that it was in a group of states that voted next-to-last in presidential primaries, followed only by Washington, DC. Now, California will get a slice of early-state action.

"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."

Padilla has a point. California has the largest bloc of Electoral College votes, is the most diverse state in the nation, has an economy larger than many nations and, with its concentration of wealthy political activists, happens to fund a significant portion of these nationwide campaigns.

"By moving up our primary date, we hope to have a real say," Padilla said.

The first nomination states enjoy the warmth of the political spotlight: time, energy and attention from candidates, press attention and the all-important campaign season spending on advertisements, consultants, campaign HQ real estate and beyond. We're still more than a year out from the first primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, and both states have already drawn would-be candidates to woo potential supporters and staffers like moths to the light.

Some political watchers have argued that states like Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn't kick off the party nomination process, arguing that those states' populations are more homogenous, rural and increasingly look less and less like the rest of the country.

Even South Carolina and Nevada, following Iowa and New Hampshire and rounding out the historic first four, are relatively smaller, with fewer media markets than behemoths like Texas, New York or California.

The argument for moving California up includes the idea that it gives a better sense of how candidates play in more diverse states much sooner in the game.

Managing the primary calendar

Theoretically, any state could move up its primary if it wanted. But moving up your primary can sometimes have disastrous results due to blowback from the national parties over what can be seen as a power grab.

Just ask voters in Michigan and Florida.

In 2008, both states moved their primaries up to January ahead of Iowa, New Hampshire and the rest. In return, both the DNC and RNC cut the size of each state's delegations in half. The states subsequently fell back in line -- and farther back on the calendar.

Early-voting states will go to extreme lengths to protect their voting status. New Hampshire's legislature even enshrined this into law in 1948.

"Iowa vigorously protects its first-in-the-nation status," said Iowa secretary of state Paul Pate.

"Being first is good for the state and we believe it's good for the country," Pate added. "It's hard to buy results in Iowa through slick Madison Avenue advertising. Here, the successful candidates visit all 99 counties and interact with voters on a personal level."

Both national parties -- arguably stuck between a rock and a hard place -- have sought to strike a middle ground in appeasing all 50 states.

"Our party values the role the early states play in the presidential primary process, as their role is critical to setting our nominee on the path towards victory," said Sabrina Singh, deputy communications director at the DNC.

With all of the first four states, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, the four quadrants of the country are represented as best they can be, Democrats say.

California's moved-up primary manages to thread the difficult needle of raising its level of importance by joining the Super Tuesday cluster -- but not taking all of the shine from the historic first four voting states.

"The final date that was selected respects the role that the early states have historically played," California's Padilla explained.

So we're now left with a super-charged Super Tuesday on March 3, including California, vote-rich Texas, Virginia and North Carolina.

The unknowns

In a place like Iowa, where the entire 2020 field (more than 30 people on the Democratic side!) is up for scrutiny and will be for the next calendar year, the picture gets clearer sooner.

The eponymous "Iowa Poll" released December 15 by CNN and The Des Moines Register has given us the first reliable snapshot at who's catching the interest of Democratic and Republican primary voters this far out.

Leading the pack: former vice president Joe Biden with 32%, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with 19%, Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke with 11%, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts with 8% and 5% for California Sen. Kamala Harris.

"Iowa serves as a magnifying glass for the country to get to see the candidates' attributes, warts and all," Pate said.

Despite the excitement of the new primary date, we don't know what voting this early will look like in California. It may be hard to get a sense of how the state will vote until after the 2020 field winnows following the results of the first four states.

Joshua Putnam, a University of North Carolina-Wilmington professor and founder of the website Frontloading HQ, predicted that California voters may wait to make up their minds, "knowing that some of the candidates on the ballot may drop out of the race after dismal showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and/or South Carolina."

But California's new, earlier status -- plus its extensive early voting process -- could also change the race in other ways.

"Some candidates may use the fact that the early voting window in the state is so large to justify staying in the race," Putnam explained. "'Sure, I lost in Iowa, but I have banked a lot of votes in California.'

"That may tide some candidates over, but the headwinds (media narrative, opposition campaign narrative) of a definitive loss in one of the early states has will likely be difficult to overcome in real time."

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