California’s early voting kickoff overlaps with Iowa caucuses

Voters outside of Iowa begin gearing up “Super Tuesday”

DES MOINES, Iowa -- For many Iowans, Monday’s caucuses mark the kickoff of the 2020 Democratic primary nominating process, but for voters in another state more than a thousand miles away, Monday will serve as the beginning of the battle for “Super Tuesday” – the March 3 primary date when the bulk of the nation’s voting contests are held.

On February 3, the same day as caucus-goers rally support for their candidates of choice across Iowa, millions of early voting ballots will be mailed to domestic voters in California. As the nation’s most populous state, California has 415 delegates up for grabs this Democratic primary season – nearly ten times more than Iowa. Although not all of the mailed ballots will be for voters participating in the Democratic primary, California’s Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, still expects a larger early voting turnout than in years past.

“Most of the nation is focusing on the Iowa caucuses on Monday -- there's 15 million vote-by-mail ballots that are being delivered simultaneously [in California],” Padilla said in an interview with ABC News. “That represents more than the populations of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, combined.”

Historically, California has held its primary elections later in the political campaign season. In 2016, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were already widely presumed to be their parties’ respective nominees by the time the Golden State voted in June. In hopes of increasing California’s influence in determining party nominees, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in 2017 to officially move up his state’s 2020 primary election date.

“This is always been the dilemma for states -- if the party's nominee is [effectively] selected, before their primary is held because the other candidates have winnowed themselves out, then you have less influence over the nomination,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida who specializes in elections and voter turnout.

This year, California will join 13 other states holding their primary contests on March 3. By the time all of the votes from those states have been tallied, nearly one-third of the delegates needed for a candidate to secure the Democratic nomination will be apportioned.

“We are the most populous state in the nation, the most diverse state in the nation, we represent the largest economy of any state in the nation -- we deserve to have a real say and a more influential role in the nominating process,” Padilla said.

“March 3 is significant in that it is the official primary election day in California, you know -- Super Tuesday,” Padilla added. “If you look at early voting and vote-by-mail, it's really ‘Super February’, for California voters.”

But while Californians and their lawmakers hope an earlier primary date will help their state have more sway in determining the final nominee outcome, the large amount of states holding primaries earlier in this election cycle may muddle California’s expected impact.

“There's been this phenomenon called ‘front loading’, whereby states have moved their primaries up closer to this window that the parties allow for the states to hold their nominating contest without any sanctions on the delegates that they might receive,” McDonald said. “There’s no clear front runner, so I expect that the contest will be very chaotic.”

“This is sort of the irony of the front loading, which is that, if you go first you may actually not really decide anything, because the race will still be unsettled,” McDonald added. “You might be in a more privileged position in terms of deciding the outcome if you had your primary or caucus later in the cycle when it's winnowed down to just a couple candidates and your state is going to make the decision as to which one of the two is going to win.”

In 2016, California’s Democratic primary contest between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders effectively cinched the Democratic nomination for Clinton. The blue state contest was still close– Clinton ultimately topped Sanders by a difference of just 387,229 votes.

Four years later, Padilla insists the move to bump up California’s primary and early voting parameters will still allow Californians to play a major role in the nomination process.

“Because California is voting earlier, candidates have actually come to California a lot more, not just to raise money,” Padilla said. “If you want to be successful in California’s primary, you have to engage the voters in more than just Los Angeles and San Francisco. It means knowing Californian issues and having to speak to [voters].”

However, the 2020 candidates who are hoping to make a play for Californian votes are facing a logistical challenge – balancing the first four contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina with the mass of “Super Tuesday” states. This year, South Carolina’s primary -- the last primary of the first four states – is happening just three days before “Super Tuesday”. According to McDonald, the pressure to perform well on “Super Tuesday” forces candidates to turn to the airwaves.

“The candidates really can't do the retail politicking that you see in an Iowa, New Hampshire, and even Nevada and South Carolina, where the candidates are holding lots of small caucus meeting or coffees and things like that in people's living rooms,” McDonald says. “[California] is too big of a state to do that, so the only solution again for California is mass advertising.”

With just four weeks to go until the California primary, only three 2020 candidates are currently carving out ad space in the Golden State – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, businessman Tom Steyer, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg eclipses his competitors in spending, having shelled out an estimated $30 million on ads in California alone.

The billionaire media mogul is sitting out the Iowa caucuses and the next following three primary contests. Since announcing his candidacy in November 2019, Bloomberg has traveled to every “Super Tuesday” state. Now, with the primary deadline looming closer, Bloomberg is further sharpening his ground game strategy. As caucus-goers gather in Iowa Monday, Bloomberg will embark on a multi-city tour of California.

Although it remains to be seen how Bloomberg plans to tailor his message to voters who may already be primed to support other candidates, Bloomberg’s campaign strategy puts him logistically ahead of the pack.

But just like every other Democratic 2020 candidate in the race, Bloomberg’s hopes for gaining momentum in California will still be susceptible to a notoriously slow ballot counting process, meaning that it could be weeks before an official winner is declared.

“We’re going to be weeks away from final, final results [on “Super Tuesday”],” Padilla says. “If it’s close state-wide or close in a handful of congressional districts, we may not know the true delegate allocation for a while.”