The 2020 Election: Why California is the Most Important State in the Democratic Primary

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Map of California shown as an island, Johannes Vingboons, circa 1650 (License: Public Domain; Source: Library of Congress)

When it comes to presidential elections, Californians have grown accustomed to the idea that their votes don’t really matter, except in a symbolic sense. Given the structure of American electoral politics, this resignation is understandable. California may be the biggest state in the country, with almost 40 million people and 55 electoral votes (the most of any state), but because it has been reliably Democrat since 1992, a vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in California has less of an impact than a similar vote in a swing state such as Ohio, Florida, or Pennsylvania.

Even in the Democratic primary, Californians have come to feel their votes are irrelevant: in 2016, the primary didn’t happen until June 7, well after Hillary Clinton had wrapped up the nomination — in fact, the night before the primary, a superdelegate declared their support for Clinton, putting her over the edge and giving an outright delegate majority and leading news networks to declare her the winner, all before Democrats in the country’s biggest state had a chance to vote.

But this election, things are different. California votes on March 3, 2020, also known as Super Tuesday. That day, California will award 416 delegates. By comparison, the four early primary states that dominate media coverage, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, only award 155 delegates total. There are, of course, other significant Super Tuesday states, such as Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, but none as big as California. That means California will play a deciding factor in picking the Democratic nominee in 2020.

Californians, though, don’t seem to realize this. Many people I talk to still think the primary is sometime in June. Others are convinced that the nominee will already be decided by March 3. But given the number of candidates in the field this election, even if one person wins all four early states (which is extremely unlikely given the states’ demographic differences), California could easily upend that result. In fact, because many Californians prefer to vote by mail rather than at a polling place, many will likely get their ballots before Iowa, which means they will get to chose without any influence from the early primary processes.

Moreover, given the size of California and the Democratic primary’s delegate allocation rules, even a few percentage points can have a huge impact on the overall primary. There is a rule in place that only candidates who get above 15% in a state’s primary will earn any delegates. For California, this threshold means that it’s likely that only two candidates will split the state’s 416 delegates, especially given the size of this Democratic primary field. For example, a recent University of California, Berkeley poll had Bernie Sanders at 24%, Elizabeth Warren at 22%, Joe Biden at 14%, and Pete Buttigieg at 12%. If those were the state’s results, only Sanders and Warren would get any delegates, even though Biden’s 14% represents a sizable number of voters. In other words, more people might vote for Joe Biden in California than in South Carolina, but because of the 15% delegate threshold, Biden could still end up with zero delegates from the state.

This also means that in California, a small difference in percentage points can reflect a huge difference in the total number of delegates a candidate wins. If Sanders, for example, gets 30% in California, and Warren gets 25%, Sanders will win at least 20 more delegates than her (and likely more depending on who fails to reach 15%). But if he gets 35% and she gets 25%, he’ll win at least 41 more delegates than her. In Iowa, meanwhile, there are only 41 delegates total. In other words, a few points in California could be worth the whole state of Iowa combined.

In the early sixteenth century, when the American continent was still being mapped and discovered, European explorers thought California was an island. Cartographers even created maps depicting California this way, most famously Johannes Vingboons in his map from 1650, pictured above. Even in the twenty-first century, though, Californians still think of their state as a metaphorical island, separated from the political happenings of the rest of the country. To them, primary elections happen in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, while general elections happen in Ohio and Florida. California, meanwhile, just has to go along with whatever the rest of the country decides.

But California is not an island. We are emphatically a part of America and its history. We are the most diverse state in the country, with the biggest Asian and Latino populations, and we are home to two of America’s most globally influential industries. We are also a flashpoint for some of America’s biggest challenges, from housing and homelessness to income inequality and climate change. We shouldn’t, therefore, act as though our voices don’t matter, or that political decisions happen in another time zone. This time, this election, we have a real chance to make our voices heard.

And so, to everyone I know who lives in California and wants to help fix our broken country, to those of you anxious about student debt and health care, to those of you angry at Donald Trump and capitalism, to those of you terrified about climate change and the planet’s future, remember, there is a candidate who we can vote for to make things better, someone who’s centered his campaign on health care and climate change, someone who will fight for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, someone with the most progressive immigration plan and foreign policy of any candidate, and, perhaps most importantly, someone who polls well against Trump in swing states.

If it’s not already clear, I’m talking about Bernie Sanders. I’ve argued before that he is the most progressive candidate in the Democratic primary field, and given that Buttigieg and Warren have now backtracked on Medicare for All, this is even more true today. As Californians, we will have an outsized chance to help make Bernie Sanders president. As I’ve outlined above, our votes don’t just matter, but given the number of candidates and the 15% delegate threshold, in this election they matter more — more than Iowa and more than New Hampshire. If Bernie wins California by five percent, it will be a huge step in helping him win the nomination. If he wins by 10%, he could lock it up on March 3.

So, to all my Californian friends: this is our chance. Go register to vote and help transform this country.

Debut novel PORTRAIT OF SEBASTIAN KHAN (2019, 7.13 Books). Writes about politics and literature.

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