Most takes on the 2020 Democratic nomination contest are focused either on national poll standings or on assessments of the field in the so-called early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina), which are guaranteed a privileged position at the beginning of the cycle by both national parties. But in 2020, the South Carolina Democratic primary will be held just three days before Super Tuesday (March 3), when 14 states (Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Vermont) are currently scheduled to hold primaries. The Big Bertha of Super Tuesday is California, which will cast 495 delegates (11 percent of the national total). This primary will almost certainly determine the fate of California senator Kamala Harris and could also determine whether California-based billionaire Tom Steyer can become a viable candidate — aside from placing a heavy hand on other candidacies for better or for worse.
That’s why it’s significant that the best-regarded Golden State poll, taken by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), is showing a turnabout in the nomination contest. Here’s PPIC’s terse summary of its findings:
Based on an open-ended question, the frontrunners are Kamala Harris (19%), Elizabeth Warren (15%), Bernie Sanders (12%), and Joe Biden (11%). Pete Buttigieg (5%) is the only other candidate supported by at least 5 percent, while 25 percent say they don’t know.
Most election preference polls utilize lists of candidates. An open-ended poll, requiring respondents to volunteer their favored candidate, is arguably more accurate, but if anything it puts a thumb on the scale for the better-known rivals. So the fact that the best-known candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are running, respectively, fourth and third in this survey is a big and surprising development.
Harris’s lead in PPIC’s open-ended poll is, of course, good news for the Californian. She leads the field among self-identified liberals and moderates alike and in every major region. What this really means is that whoever comes steaming out of the early states with momentum will be in a position to win a lot of delegates in California. If PPIC’s findings are any indication, the state will not be any sort of firewall for Joe Biden if he stumbles in Iowa or New Hampshire or Nevada or South Carolina. It could, in fact, represent the death knell for his campaign. But at this point Biden leads in all the four early states. He’d better do well before the contest splits to the Left Coast. There’s no comfort there for him.