Thoughts About the California Presidential Primary

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

With the withdrawal of California’s junior Senator Kamala Harris from the presidential race, the state will not have a “favorite daughter” on the ballot in March.

Hers was a strategic decision as much as a financial imperative after a steep decline in her ability to raise funds with the all-important Iowa Caucus looming in less than 4 weeks where most candidates are focusing their resources.

Given the growing likelihood of a poor showing in the traditional first-in-the-nation presidential contest which carries considerable weight a bad loss there would have effectively ended her campaign. It was a risk the Harris forces wisely rejected.

Taking a leaf from President Obama’s winning playbook in both 2008 and 2012, the idea was to hold on long enough to capture the South Carolina primary a few weeks later in a state which offers a far more diverse demographic including a very large African-American voter population.

Obama however made history becoming the first candidate ever to come in first in the Iowa Caucus and after a stumble in next-up New Hampshire losing to Hillary Clinton he went on to trounce her in South Carolina stringing together thereafter 11 consecutive victories.

Beginning on so-called Super Tuesday on March 3rd many of these wins were in deep south states in what became known as the “southern strategy.”

That has a better chance of working for a centrist such as Joe Biden who could benefit from his legacy of popularity with black voters. But for most experts convincing Iowa voters is the first order of business.
Even more tellingly, Obama eventually won Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and crucial Ohio which has correctly picked 29 of the last 31 presidents. Clinton lost in all four leading many to believe this was the principal cause for her defeat.

Though Clinton was able to out-poll Obama by 425,000 votes in the ’08 California primary held then in June it turned out to be of little consequence as Obama kept accumulating more delegates nation-wide with opposition only from one other candidate.

The Democratic race this year has been practically a free-for-all with 14 candidates still technically in contention.

This time around the California primary is lumped with 14 other states who will be holding primaries on March 3rd which will account for 40% of all the Democratic delegates to the national convention.

And it guarantees that serious candidates will very soon be making numerous visits to the Golden State.

It is also a certainty that at least five or more Democratic aspirants will be battling here furiously for voters in a state whose late primary picks after most states had voted and giant cache of electoral votes have historically had negligible influence on the final results. That may change.

However, in this crowded field, Sen. Harris’s prospects had she decided to go on the state ballot was very much a question mark.

The picture is further complicated by a surfeit of highly talented candidates with split allegiances from those in both the activist and more moderate wings of the state Democratic Party who remain deeply divided.

Whoever emerges victorious from the California primary with a majority of its huge mother lode of 495 delegates could gain significant headway in this highly jumbled race.

Still, neither he nor she will be able to make convincing claims to the nomination in a battle which could be destined to go all the way to the convention next July.

As a freshwoman Senator yet to establish any definitive legislative record Harris would have been potentially vulnerable to a tough challenge within her own party in 2022 with a poor showing.

It is not clear whether the absence of a minority group candidate will have a depressing effect on Democratic voter turnout in what is officially a “majority-minority” state.

However, now that former Latino Housing Secretary Julian Castro’s endorsement of Elizabeth Warren may have given her a lift with California’s quickly expanding Spanish-speaking voters, Harris’s considerable popularity in California among young women activists and black voters could make her endorsement equally prized.

The bigger question for the Democrats is whether they can unify behind any of the leading candidates and if animus toward Trump is sufficient by itself to overcome long-standing factional disputes.

One factor which Harris and every candidate faces and can affect the outcome of this high stakes race is the availability of campaign funds.

Perversely, California has always been the central bank for fund-starved candidates who are now forced to recycle those monies in a state with the highest media advertising costs in the nation.

This can benefit billionaires and millionaires such as Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer who have unlimited wealth. Steyer has already laid out $47 million after just three months on the campaign trail and is showing up as 2nd in the South Carolina polls.

That’s a mere trifle for Bloomberg, an even later entrant, who has spent a total of $211 million just in California, Texas and Florida and will bypass the early primaries entirely. He now stands 5th in some national polls.

Nevertheless if California Democrats are willing to spread their dollars among such an enlarged field of favorites their spending power will be diluted if they cannot ultimately unite around a single candidate.

Going to the national convention in such disarray would not only diminish the impact of the primary results but could have long-standing implications for the general election.

Ironically while moving up the date of the California primary to give it more national clout favors those with the biggest bankrolls the outsized and arguably long outdated influence exerted by two of the nation’s smallest states—Iowa and New Hampshire—could still offer the winners critical sway with the voters.

The democratizing effect of holding numerous primaries over what many believe has become an overly drawn out campaign season may be offset by the inescapable need to raise money in order to qualify for the obligatory debates.

In other words big money still rules the game and in that arena Trump’s GOP machine has few peers.

True “Grassroots campaigns” has a wonderful ring but they may have started going out of style around 1948 when Democrat Harry Truman won an upset  victory over Thomas E. Dewey his much more well-heeled GOP opponent.

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