kamala harris

California Is a Golden Opportunity — and Challenge — for Kamala Harris in 2020

Kamala Harris at her presidential campaign launch in Oakland. Photo: Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been obvious for a while that California’s decision to move its presidential primary up to March 3, soon after the four protected early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, could have as large an impact on the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating contest as the state’s size. That’s not just because of the vast number of delegates that will be at stake; the state’s heavy voting-by-mail tendencies mean the contest in California will really begin much earlier, as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti has pointed out:

[S]trategists aligned with potential contenders’ teams are already starting to plan for 2020 by operating under the assumption that early voting in California — the state with the most delegates up for grabs — will start the very morning of Iowa’s evening caucuses, the traditional kickoff.

California’s calendar shake-up is particularly important to the promising campaign of its junior Senator Kamala Harris (and presumably to Bay Area congressman Eric Swalwell, too, if he has any hopes of transcending his current obscurity to become a viable candidate). It offers her a potential early delegate lead, but also could be a fatal stumbling block if she does not do well there. And that’s why the first major 2020 presidential primary poll from the state, released by Quinnipiac, is interesting: It shows Harris running third with 17 percent, a point behind Bernie Sanders and nine points behind Joe Biden. No other candidate is even close to double-digits, though Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg are tied at fourth place with seven percent. Harris’s support is spread pretty evenly among demographic groups (she actually runs ahead of Bernie Sanders among self-identified “very liberal” voters, which is interesting given the issues some progressive activists have had with her record as a prosecutor).

Harris’s effort to become California’s favorite-daughter candidate in 2020 has a ways to go. She has done quite well in obtaining early endorsements from the state’s elected officials, as Politico noted in February:

In a show of force aimed at locking down support in California — an early primary state critical to her 2020 hopes — Sen. Kamala Harris on Tuesday announced the backing of a score of Democratic California statewide officers.

The Harris campaign Tuesday is set to announce the backing of Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, state Secretary of State Alex Padilla, State Treasurer Fiona Ma, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, POLITICO has learned.

Harris’ latest endorsements in delegate-rich California, provided to POLITICO, come just weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his backing of her 2020 bid …

Along with the endorsements of four California members of Congress — Barbara Lee, Ted Lieu, Nanette Barragan, and Katie Hill — Harris now has the support of 21 of the state Senate’s 28 Democrats, 75 percent of the caucus.

But having only been elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris has soft public support and less than complete name identification. A fourth-quarter 2018 Morning Consult poll showed 29 percent of Californians as unable to give her a job-approval rating. A February 2019 Quinnipiac poll of California looked better, with only 16 percent falling into the clueless-about-Harris category; her overall approval ratio was a good-if-not-great 53/32 (80/7 among Democrats). And as the new Q-poll indicates, Biden and Sanders are both extremely familiar to Californians.

Harris’s campaign strategy doesn’t entirely depend on California, though: She hopes for an earlier breakthrough — perhaps in South Carolina, with its very large African-American population, or perhaps in next-door Nevada — that will boost her strength in the Golden State. Democrats’ strictly proportional (subject to a 15 percent threshold) delegate-award rules will make it difficult for Harris to win anything, like a majority of California delegates, but the key thing is that she really cannot afford to run second or third.

Money will ultimately determine which candidates other than Harris decide to “play” in California. An early estimate is that spending in that primary will approach $100 million, or about the same total absorbed by the Iowa Caucuses. Another wild card is how many independents — who can vote in Democratic presidential primaries but must affirmatively request a Democratic ballot — participate; they were Bernie Sanders’s stronghold in 2016, and are now a potential problem for Harris.

California Is a Golden Opportunity for Kamala Harris in 2020