Something’s wrong here: California will send exponentially more delegates to the national Democratic Party’s nominating convention this summer in Milwaukee than all three of the first caucus and primary election states, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Plus, Californians will begin receiving their ballots for their first overwhelmingly mail-in statewide election on Feb. 4, just one day after the Iowa caucuses and eight days before anyone in New Hampshire can vote in that state’s traditionally first-in-the-nation primary.
Why should people who declare themselves independent, no party preference (NPP) voters pay for a primary where they can’t vote for anyone they please?
And yet all candidates for this cycle’s only contested presidential nomination are mostly staying out of California.
This is very hard to figure. Why, for example, did former Vice President Joe Biden skip the state Democratic Party’s mid-November convention in Long Beach? Why Elizabeth Warren? Why would they ignore a traditional campaign season cattle call, leaving the field to the likes of Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang and Cory Booker? All but Sanders and Buttegieg are in the second or third tier among Democratic hopefuls.
The answer is tradition. While they could pick up almost as many delegates and popular votes in just two or three of California’s congressional districts as in any of the early primary states, those states are where candidates always go for momentum – and to drop out when Big Mo ignores them.
But just as candidates had to adjust to the new digital world, shifting much advertising to social media and away from television commercials, they ought to be adjusting right now to the new primary calendar.
Suddenly, California has gone from irrelevant, ignored and unvisited to vitally important, thoroughly analyzed and swamped with tourists dressed up like presidential candidates and their aides.
Yes, for candidates with little or no cash on hand (like Harris, Castro and Booker), it may pay to stay out of California and in tiny states where personal hand-to-hand campaigning can help them if they do it well enough.
But for candidates like Biden, Warren and Michael Bloomberg, the Golden State could be a gold mine.
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Yet, none wants to risk spending much time here right now, thinking that might lead to humiliation in the early states that have long meant so much.
Except by staying away, they lose the exposure they could get in this most vote-rich state of all. By concentrating on just a few California congressional districts and doing Iowa-style campaigning there, an appealing but underfunded hopeful could pick up plenty of delegates.
The Democratic Party rules in California set up this kind of creative politicking, if anyone wants to try it. The rules give each of our 53 districts between four and six delegates, with another big pot going to the statewide leader. Since Democrats win delegates in proportion to their primary or caucus performances, and New Hampshire has just 24 pledged delegates compared with California’s 495, a candidate who wins only two districts here by big margins could get as many delegates as someone who wins New Hampshire with a 30 percent plurality (no one now has that much support there).
The benefits and drawbacks of California’s moved-up 2020 primary election are now becoming very clear: Presidential candidates are now a ubiquitous presence in the Golden State, and they’re becoming conversant with California issues like never before.
So traditionalism now hamstrings Democratic candidates. If they allow that during the fall runoff, presumably against President Trump, they will run into big problems. Trump’s campaign, the most cybernetic ever, responds with instant ads attuned to every new political or global development.
So here’s some advice to those second-tier candidates (are you listening, Kamala Harris?) who seem to have little realistic chance of winning the plurality in Iowa or New Hampshire: Come back to California during December and January, and often.
Pick a place where concerted campaigning among a relatively few voters can produce delegates.
This might mean districts that remained Republican through the 2018 Democratic congressional landslide. For instance, the Eighth District, stretching south from the high desert east of the Sierra Nevada down into parts of the San Bernardino area, could be a big plus for a clever Democrat.
Both Democrats and Republicans have long harbored big dreams about Latino voters. Now, as California gets set for its first seemingly influential presidential primary in decades, the dreams of both parties may not be coming true.
The district has few Democrats, but still awards four delegates. It may be the easiest place in America for a Democrat to win delegates by contacting small numbers of voters. Stage a town hall or two in this area that rarely sees a presidential candidate and you might just become more prominent.
But who listens to advice, when tradition is so strong? Only those who really want to win — and so far, the candidates all but ignoring California are showing that’s not them.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. He is author of the book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”
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