What will happen in California’s Democratic primary

By Garry South

February 27, 2020

Cal Matters

Having been asked to write a piece for CalMatters about the California primary this Tuesday, I first asked myself, what do I really know for sure about the race and the candidate field that would be enlightening or even interesting to share with the readers?

After pondering that question, instead of playing a prognosticator with predictions and prophecies, I decided to take more the course of bemused musing, putting the prospects of the remaining candidates into some historical perspective.

For example, one could speculate that a woman candidate might have a distinct advantage in the California primary. After all, a female overwhelming won the last two contested Democratic primaries in the state.

Hillary Clinton garnered 51.5% of the vote against Barack Obama in 2008, and 53% when pitted against Bernie Sanders just four years ago. Too, California was the first state to have two female U.S. senators serving at the same time, and that has remained the case for the past 28 years. The first female House Speaker is from California, as well.

Ah, but there are contraindications, to borrow a word from the instructions on your  meds.

Our own female senator, Kamala Harris, despite a promising start, was showing so poorly in her own home state that she was compelled to exit the race to avoid embarrassment.

And the two women candidates left on the debate stage, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, are in danger of not reaching the 15% threshold in order to be entitled to snare delegates statewide on Tuesday. So who really knows?

It might also be thought that Sen. Sanders has a built-in advantage, having run an aggressive campaign here in the primary just four years ago, and achieving 46% against a better-known opponent, Hillary Clinton, than the other remaining candidates in this field.

But here, too, there are contraindications.

The Real Clear Politics polling average this week has Sanders at only about 28% in California. That’s still good enough to be leading the field, but nearly 20 points off his showing just four years ago.

And in the first primary in this election season, in his next-door New Hampshire, Sanders won, but his percent of the vote fell pretty precipitously from 60.4 in ‘16 to just 25.6%. He clearly is not carrying the same size cohort with him that he won in 2016. So again, who knows?

Former Vice President Joe Biden, it might be argued, should have some sort of natural edge in California, because he was the vice presidential nominee on a Democratic ticket that overwhelmingly carried the state twice, in the 2008 and 2012 general elections. So California voters have already essentially voted for Biden twice.

Garry South with Vice President Al Gore in Los Angeles in his 2000 presidential campaign.

Also germane, Vice President Al Gore, who likewise had been on a ticket that handily carried California twice, cleaned up in the 2000 Democratic presidential primary here, annihilating former NBA star and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley 80-20, and after spending zero money in the state and not airing a single ad.

(I chaired the state steering committee in that campaign, and we did it all with surrogates, including Gov. Gray Davis, and free media). But will that history and precedent make any difference for Biden? Well, who knows?

The two billionaires, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, are spending unheard-of amounts of money out of their own pockets to buy their way into the nominating process.

Bloomberg has already spent more money on TV advertising than Hillary Clinton spent during her whole campaign in 2016. His ads are omnipresent, even when you google for underwear sales, popping up just about everywhere except on bus benches (at least so far).

But—yup, yet another contraindication to follow—California voters have a decades-long habit of shunning wealthy, self-financing candidates—Norton Simon, Herb Hafif, William Matson Roth, Al Checchi, Jane Harman, Richard Riordan, Bill Simon, Steve Westly and Meg Whitman, to name a few.

Truth to tell, I ran the campaigns that defeated Checchi, Harman, Riordan, and Simon, and was senior advisor to the unsuccessful Westly campaign for governor in the 2006 Democratic primary, so I’ve been a firsthand witness to this phenomenon at both ends. So, despite the stratospheric spending, who knows?

California also might be viewed as fertile territory for Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the first major openly gay candidate to seek the Democratic nomination.

The state was Ground Zero for the ultimately successful same-sex marriage movement, when then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom—who is now governor, of course—in 2004 ordered the city clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The state is very LGBT-friendly, has been for decades, and was the first state to allow legally registered domestic partnerships under legislation signed by Democratic Gov. Davis in 1999.

Numerous other groundbreaking state laws protect LGBT rights and prerogatives, including landmark protections for transgender persons.

But alas, Buttigieg appears to be garnering only about 10% of the primary vote according to the latest polling averages, not even enough support to qualify for convention delegates statewide if he doesn’t reach the minimum 15% threshold. So, to repeat the refrain, who knows?

If I were really put to the test, my best sense is that Sanders will “win” the California primary with a plurality somewhere in the 30s, with Biden, Bloomberg and Warren coming in second, third and fourth, but not necessarily in that order. But, you know, who knows?