California officials are considering moving up their state’s presidential primary — a shift that could have drastic implications for how the Democratic Party will pick its nominee to run in 2020.
A pair of bills in California’s Legislature would move the state’s presidential primary from June to March. In 2016, California served as the last contest in both party primaries. But the state is such a political behemoth for Democrats that any shift could change how candidates and the party approach their nomination race.
If California moves up its primary, it could boost potential candidates who already have a large fund-raising base, such as US Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. California is one of the most expensive states in which to run a campaign, and only candidates with deep pockets will be able to compete there.
It also means that the party’s pick, whoever it is, could lock up the nomination in as few as 90 days. This means the party could avoid public wrangling over a long, drawn-out contest, such as the six-month intra-party fights that Democrats endured in 2008 and 2016.
Depending on which bill is passed in California, the state’s primary could be in the first half of states to host a primary or caucus, if not even earlier.
A House bill would move the California primary to the first Tuesday in March — the same day voters in Massachusetts and several other states will likely vote. It’s the date sometimes known as Super Tuesday.
The Senate bill would schedule the Golden State’s primary for the third week of March, but it also allows the governor to move the primary to an earlier date.
Both bills have passed their respective chambers. A spokeswoman for California Governor Jerry Brown, who could approve or veto the bills, said it is office policy not to comment on pending legislation.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who has championed the idea and is backing the Senate bill, said that whatever the national implications might be, it’s good for California.
“California is the largest economy and the most diverse state in so many ways that there is no reason why Californians shouldn’t have more of a say on who the next president will be,” Padilla said in a recent interview.
But will Californians have more of a say in the primary, or will major national political donors?
Traditionally, lesser-known candidates have had a fighting chance early in the primaries because they can focus their campaigning and advertisements on three small and relatively inexpensive states — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
What’s more, if California moves up its primary, other states are likely to follow.
Under Democratic National Committee rules, just four states can hold presidential primary contests before March 1: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Otherwise individual states have the discretion to pick their primary or caucus dates.
And state officials will not want their states to be considered an afterthought by holding a primary after California, creating a de facto national primary, according to University of Georgia political scientist Josh Putnam.
“The reasoning would be similar to 2008: Be a part of a de facto national primary or have no say at all,” said Putnam, who authors the Frontloading HQ blog on the presidential primary calendar. “It is a gamble either way, but California added to those other medium to large states at the front affects the cost-benefit analysis in those later states.”
In New Hampshire, where law dictates the state must always hold the nation’s first presidential primary, politicos don’t appear to be worried about what a California move would mean for them.
“Historically, New Hampshire has not paid much attention to the calendar after our primary,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley. “At this time, I see no reason to start now. Of course, that could change after I talk to folks in the other early states.”
For now, the California debate is confined to Democrats for a couple reasons. There’s not much talk about a Republican primary challenge to Trump, and Democrats control most of California’s politics.
But there’s another advantage for Democrats in a shorter primary punctuated by the juggernaut of California. If the nominee effectively ends the primary quickly, he or she has more lead time to take on an incumbent president, both in fund-raising and direct engagement.
The last time Democrats had such a front-loaded system was in 2014, when former US senator John Kerry of Massachusetts grabbed the nomination quickly. He also lost the general election.