LOS ANGELES -- While Sen. Bernie Sanders mined the motherlode of delegates from California on Super Tuesday, it wasn’t nearly enough and isn’t getting counted fast enough to counter former Vice President Joe Biden’s huge night.
It became an issue of numbers and timing.
After years of being a late season player in presidential primary politics, California joined the Super Tuesday crowd, and its 415 delegates were the biggest haul on the biggest night.
But even though Sanders’ victory in California was declared quickly, it came after a series of surprising wins for Biden that dominated the earlier coverage of the primaries. And Sanders' precise delegate margin in the state won’t be known any time soon. California, with lots of early and mail-in voting, typically takes weeks to finish counting ballots. Experts expect millions are left to count.
The late-night Pacific wave that Sanders was supposed to surf to victory didn’t quite break right. His campaign declined to comment on California specifically, but top aides said before Super Tuesday that they expected far higher delegate totals than they were on pace to actually earn after voting concluded.
“Of course I’m disappointed. I would like to win every state by a landslide. It’s not going to happen," Sanders said Wednesday.
With almost two-thirds of California’s delegates allocated by The Associated Press, Sanders won about 60 more delegates in California than Biden. However, Biden won about 130 more than Sanders in the other 13 states and both got blanked in American Samoa.
“I do think Biden will come out with more delegates out of Super Tuesday,” said Louisiana State University political scientist Joshua Darr. He said late counted votes in California will help Sanders narrow Biden's win, but “it’s going to take a seismic shift then for Sanders to catch him.”
Ace Smith, a top California political consultant who had worked on Kamala Harris’ campaign, said it’s looking “pretty darn good” for Biden in California, even as Sanders is likely to walk away with more delegates.
Last week, it looked as if Sanders would dominate the field with several other candidates cracking the 15% threshold needed to win delegates. But Biden’s dominance has closed that gap, Smith said.
“A week ago it looked like he was going to come out with just a mountain of delegates, a Santa Claus sack full from California, but it’s just not going to happen,” he said. “Biden got on a crazy roll with what happened across the country.”
But it’s not just mere numbers. It’s timing.
California’s secretary of state won’t announce until Thursday how many ballots are left to be counted, after the state collects data from all 58 counties. And counties don't have to report their final results until April 3, a full month after the primary.
Paul Mitchell, who runs the nonpartisan Political Data Inc., which collects and analyzes voter data, guessed as many as 4 million to 5 million ballots have yet to be counted, though they will not all be those of Democratic primary voters. Roughly 80% of California’s registered voters received mail-in ballots, and those can be counted as long as they are postmarked by election day and received by Friday.
Some counties have only recorded about half the ballots they already have in hand or expect to get, he said. As of Wednesday afternoon, the secretary of state’s office reported about 5.3 million ballots had been cast.
In 2018, nearly 44% of California’s vote was not counted on election night.
Outside of California, “people have this expectation that election night means election night,” Darr said.
But not having full results for days after the election “is normal for California. It’s not normal for Super Tuesday observers,” Darr said. “It does delay things.”
But which way?
The ballots California counts first are those that are mailed in early. Sanders and Biden could both benefit as more votes come in, Mitchell said. Voters that cast ballots on or near election day tend to be younger and more progressive, which could benefit Sanders. But Biden may also get a boost among the late deciders swayed by the events of the last several days, as he did in other states on Super Tuesday.
AP VoteCast found that late-deciders in California broke more for Biden than Sanders.
Darr said the momentum shift was obvious and may favor Biden in those late-counting votes, or at least counter Sanders’ late youth vote.
Borenstein reported from Washington. Will Weissert contributed from Washington.