One of Senator Kamala Harris’s advantages in the Democratic presidential primary is that her home state of California could potentially lift her into a powerful front-running position with its unusually early primary next March. However for Harris, this development on Friday could not have been welcome. Per the San Jose Mercury News:
Sen. Elizabeth Warren drew thousands of fans to Laney College on Friday night for a town hall that she described as her largest event in the country so far, a show of force for the progressive presidential contender.
An estimated 6,500 people waited in a line that stretched for blocks. Organizers had relocated the event from the gymnasium to the much larger soccer field that morning, but it still took two hours for everyone to make it through the gate, delaying the start by an hour.
Despite the wait, the crowd was in good spirits, cheering at Warren’s proposals to end corruption in Washington and booing references to the Koch brothers.
Laney College is in Oakland, Harris’s home town.
Warren’s foray into her rival’s home turf was part of an invasion of the state by 14 Democratic presidential candidates this weekend for the annual convention of the California Democratic Party. Of the top-to-middle-tier candidates, only Joe Biden was missing, which might have been a good idea for him given the raucous, left-bent mood of the assembled delegates and assorted activists in and around San Francisco. One candidate, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, was lustily booed at the convention for attacking socialism (or for having “red-baited us,” as one listener put it).
What the festivities show is that no one is inclined to give the state’s native daughter a wide berth in a state that will cast 416 first-ballot delegate votes (and 495 on subsequent ballots) at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee next summer. California’s March 3 primary will be held immediately after the four “early states” of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.
This isn’t strictly speaking a reflection on any mistakes Harris has made; Democratic candidates are always going to spend time in California if only for its status as the “Democrats ATM,” a bottomless well for fundraising. Democrats’ proportional allocation system for delegates means it will be exceptionally difficult for any one candidate to dominate. And there’s also the reality that Harris has only been in the U.S. Senate for three years, and has no automatic name ID advantage over Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders (who waged a very energetic campaign in the state in 2016), or Elizabeth Warren. As elsewhere, Biden has a natural appeal to self-identified party moderates (including Harris’s Senate colleague Diane Feinstein, who has endorsed the former veep), as do Sanders and Warren among California’s strong and self-consciously militant progressives. Pete Buttigieg has made significant inroads in Hollywood (where long-shot candidate Marianne Williamson also has some support); you figure Julian Castro will make every effort to appeal to the state’s large Latino population, and that Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard might get a foothold among Asian-American/Pacific Islander voters.
Early polls show Biden and Sanders running first and second in California as in most other states. A recent survey from Change Research (an online polling firm, so take it with a grain of salt) had Harris running a reasonably strong third in the Golden State, but with Warren and Buttigieg nipping at her heels. There are a couple of major complications affecting any prognostications about the 2020 California primary. First, while voting will end on March 3 (a.k.a, Super Tuesday) mail ballots in this heavy voting-by-mail state will start being sent out on February 3, the same day as the Iowa Caucuses. It’s hard to know how many early votes candidates can “bank” before results from the four earlier states begin to affect candidate preferences. And second, in California as elsewhere, candidates will need 15 percent of the vote to qualify for any delegates, whether they are awarded at the congressional district level (272 of the state’s pledged delegates) or statewide (90 more delegates). If the field remains large after the initial contests, with no dominant front-runner, candidates may struggle to reach the threshold for delegates in California and other big delegate-awarding Super Tuesday states (e.g., Texas).
Harris’s strategy has been to perform decently in Iowa, New Hampshire, and next-door Nevada before achieving a breakthrough in South Carolina, with its large African-American population, and then surging into a lead in her home state. It’s doable but very tricky, and will likely require a win in California. A Warren boomlet could actually be a boon to Harris if it helps cut Sanders down to size, but like everyone else, she has to hope for a Biden stumble early on. But if Harris is the one who stumbles early, California could be a rich source of delegates for any candidate with a head of steam as the contest moves west.