For four decades, the road to the White House began with candidates working the grill at the Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines, then offering coffee and handshakes at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester.
But in 2020, the first presidential primary ballots could technically be cast in California hours before Iowans head to their caucuses, due to new early voting laws in the nation’s most populous state.
This means that as roughly two dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls — including Senator Elizabeth Warren — take a closer look at their prospective paths to the nomination, they will be forced to balance California, a juggernaut for party delegates necessary to win the nomination, with the traditional calendar that starts with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
“There is tremendous uncertainty as to how this thing will play out,” said Jim Demers, Barack Obama’s sherpa in New Hampshire’s 2008 primary and a supporter this cycle of Senator Cory Booker, who had multiple events earlier this month in the state. Although he hasn’t had the “California conversation” with Booker, Demers said, he’s mindful of the state’s impact on his first-in-the-nation primary.
“Presidential candidates will have to spend more time in more states than they have in the past,” he said. “Instead of just campaigning in early states, candidates will be forced to figure out how they can raise big money to be on television early in California.”
Officials in Iowa and New Hampshire have not officially set dates for their contests. But the Democratic National Committee’s initial outline puts Iowa on Feb. 3 and New Hampshire on Feb. 11. California, Texas, Massachusetts, and six other states will hold their contests on March 3.
California allows voters to vote — either in person or by mail — beginning 29 days before the primary date, which happens to be the day of the Iowa Caucuses and eight days before the New Hampshire primary. If the schedule holds, early voters begin casting ballots in Tennessee a day after New Hampshire, followed days later by North Carolina, Texas, and Oklahoma. (Officials in Massachusetts seek early voting for up to five days before the primary.)
To be sure, New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina are still expected to play an outsized role in the process. These states have already been a hub of activity for those thinking about running for president with at least one person testing the water every week.
After all, only one person since 1976 — Bill Clinton in 1992 — has won the presidential nomination, Democrat or Republican, without winning the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary.
But with more than twice as many delegates as any other state, California’s foray into early voting could change the contours of the Democratic nomination battle, which typically runs through June.
“Potential candidates are right now trying to figure out the California question, and I am hearing folks in early states worried about what it means for their impact in the process,” said Jamie Harrison, a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman. Harrison is unaffiliated with any potential campaign.
The bottom line: Well-known and well-financed candidates like Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former vice president Joe Biden may have an advantage in California, which, with its large media markets, is also the most expensive state for a campaign. Meanwhile, lesser-known rivals will generally try to compete in Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping for a slingshot of momentum from media coverage.
Warren is already strengthening her ties to the Golden State. During the midterm elections, she campaigned and held a fund-raiser for one of her former law students, Katie Porter, who won a US House seat in Orange County. Warren also sat down with eight other Democratic House candidates in California and recorded videos for three of them.
To further complicate matters, more potential 2020 Democrats hail from California than any other state, including US Senator Kamala Harris, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, US Representative Eric Swalwell, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and billionaire Tom Steyer.
“Certainly I don’t think it hurts someone like me, but you have to actually get to the California primary first,” Swalwell, who traveled to both Iowa and New Hampshire last week, said in an interview. “Just as a student of history, the field of candidates will get cut in half or worse right after Iowa and New Hampshire. I imagine this will be especially the case of the large number of people from California looking at it.”
Investing in California could be a gamble for some candidates. It’s anyone’s guess how many people there will actually show up to vote early and before the results in Iowa and New Hampshire are announced.
Voters in Vermont, for example, will be able to pick up and cast ballots as early as Jan. 18, 2020. But in 2016, relatively few took advantage of early voting there — with 93 percent of Democratic voters drawing ballots on the presidential primary day.
“To shortchange the early contests and bank on California would be the height of political malpractice,” said veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who helped direct John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and now teaches at University of Southern California.
Shrum points to such candidates as Phil Gramm and Rudy Giuliani, who skipped campaigning in early primary states to focus elsewhere. Their strategy backfired as their competitors picked up early momentum.
Still, California’s aggressive move is just the latest development that has diminished the impact of the states that come first on the presidential primary calendar, said Democratic strategist Matt Rodriguez, who worked on three New Hampshire campaigns and now lives in Santa Monica.
“Gone are the days of the New Hampshire primary when Jimmy Carter slept at supporters’ houses and Gary Hart campaigned in a snowstorm,” said Rodriguez. “This time someone will nationalize the race quickly and see California as a reason do to that.”
“That said, the candidates will need to focus on the early states because if you get fourth in Iowa then, by definition, you won’t be a national candidate,” he said. “You may no longer even be a candidate.”