California’s early primary no pot of gold for Kamala Harris

By Garry South

March 5, 2019

Sacramento Bee

Ever since Sen. Kamala Harris announced her presidential campaign, there’s been a gush of speculation about the importance of her home state in the nomination process – especially since the California primary has been moved up to March.

I’m neither for nor against Harris in the primary, and I will enthusiastically support her if she is the Democratic candidate. But much of the hype about the supposed primacy of the California primary for her candidacy ignores the recent history of the state’s role in the Democratic nominating process.

The last time a California candidate ran in the state’s Democratic presidential primary was 1992, when former two-term Gov. Jerry Brown challenged Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Unlike several other major candidates who dropped out before the June 2 primary, Brown hung on, carried six states and even spoke at the national convention.

But in his home state, where he had been elected secretary of state and governor twice, and had been on the Democratic presidential primary ballots in 1976 and 1980, Clinton beat him handily by seven points. Brown carried only 15 of 58 counties, and even lost Los Angeles County – where he had first been elected to the community college board – by 13 percent. Clinton had never even been on a California ballot before.

Brown’s two previous appearances in the California presidential primary had produced a mixed verdict. Less than two years after he was first elected governor, in the 1976 presidential sweepstakes, he carried California overwhelmingly over the eventual nominee Jimmy Carter 59-20 percent and picked up 204 delegates to Carter’s 67. But this huge victory didn’t deliver the Democratic nomination to Brown, since he won only two other states and finished out of the running.

When Brown ran again, in 1980 – this time against a sitting Democratic president – the results were ugly. Brown got 10 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and his campaign flamed out in Wisconsin. His name was still on the California primary ballot, but voters gave their sitting governor a meager four percent.

The state’s last early primary was on Feb. 5, 2008. Even by that early date, every other major candidate had dropped out. It was essentially a two-way race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton won more than half the vote, 51.5 percent to Obama’s 43 percent. But because of the way California delegates are apportioned based on the percentage of the vote, Clinton ended up with a total net advantage of only 38 pledged delegates. And Clinton lost the nomination to Obama despite her California win.

In 2016, Hillary won California with 53 percent of the vote against Bernie Sanders’ 46 percent. But again, thanks to proportional distribution, she netted just 33 more pledged delegates than Sanders.

In short, history suggests that all the frothing about the California primary may or may not result in a major boost for Harris. And it almost certainly will not result in an insurmountable treasure trove of delegates for her.

First, Brown’s lackluster performances in the 1980 and 1992 primaries show that California voters are not so parochial or infused with home-state pride that they will just automatically cast their ballots for a Californian.

Second, unlike Hillary Clinton in both 2008 and 2016, Harris is likely to face a larger field of contenders than the one-on-one races Clinton won with more than half the vote. Although under the California Democratic Party’s rules, candidates must reach at least a 15 percent threshold to qualify for any delegates, the more candidates there are splitting the votes, the fewer even a hefty winner will garner from the primary.

Third, unlike Brown in 1976, Harris may have another California competitor to contend with if Rep. Eric Swalwell enters the race.

We don’t know how Harris will perform in the Iowa caucuses or in the early primaries. Her campaign announcement was impressive. She has clearly placed herself in the top tier of candidates.

But past performance is no guarantee of future results. The breathless notion that the California primary could put it all away for Harris defies the numbers and recent history.

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Garry South is a veteran Democratic political strategist based in California who managed Gray Davis’ successful gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 and 2002, and played a central role in Al Gore’s 2000 winning presidential primary and general election campaigns in California.