Why Democratic presidential candidates are so focused on California

By Alexander Tin

/ CBS News

Biden says he no longer supports Hyde Amendment

California is the wealthiest and most populous state in America. It's also spent the last few decades as an afterthought when it comes to presidential politics, thanks to a mixture of its reliable partisan lean and its low standing in the primaries.

The one-time swing state has given its 55 electoral votes to Democratic nominees for decades, meaning that neither party makes much of an effort here in the general election. And despite its progressive bent, its been one of the last states to vote in the Democratic primaries, which has severely limited the ability of everyday Golden State residents to pick their next president.

But that will all change in 2020, when California becomes one of the biggest prizes of the primary. No wonder more than a dozen of the party's presidential hopefuls swarmed the state Democratic convention this past weekend.

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California voters next year will start casting early primary ballots as early as February 3rd. Advancing three months up the calendar, the state — which is home to more delegates than any other — now competes directly with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada in demanding candidates' attention.

And the state's Democrats have enthusiastically embraced the kind of retail politicking once reserved for the early primary and caucus states, from an overflowing meeting of local Santa Monica Democrats looking to meet Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to the thousands that waited in line for a town hall Sen. Elizabeth Warren held in Oakland.

"For so many years, we were seen as simply the ATM of the nation when it comes to these candidates, on both sides of the aisle," California Insurance Commissioner Ricard Lara told CBS News.

Then a state senator, Lara was the principal author of legislation in 2017 to boost California's primary to the coveted "Super Tuesday" slot in early March.

"I started thinking about the fact that California, our views, our policies are not incorporated into these presidential debates," Lara said.

Dominated by Democrats across state government, the Golden State has led the charge on hundreds of progressive causes. Last year alone, California became one of the first states to eliminate cash bail, require women on corporate boards, and commit to eliminating carbon emissions.

Evidence of the state's deep blue politics was on full display at the Democratic state party convention last weekend, as delegates erupted in boos after former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said that "socialism is not the answer."

But while the party's leaders may favor the field's more progressive candidates, insiders insist the path to winning many of the state's almost 500 delegates remains "wide open." And voters have shown a willingness to dismiss the opinions of party leaders, who endorsed progressive challenger Kevin de Leon over Sen. Dianne Feinstein last year. Feinstein easily won reelection regardless.

"I think there's probably a natural advantage to former Vice President Biden as well as favorite daughter Kamala Harris too," California Assembly Speaker pro tempore Kevin Mullin told CBS News. In 2017, Mullin was a principal co-author of the Super Tuesday push.

"But if you're really looking at the proportional allocation of delegates, congressional district by congressional district, there really is an opportunity for candidates to fan out into places where their message might resonate," Mullin added.

More than half of the state's delegation to the Democratic National Committee will be "district-level delegates," proportionally allocated in each of California's congressional district to candidates that garner at least 15 percent of the primary vote. That means that regardless of who commands the most overall votes, a number of candidates could walk away from the primary with delegates.

"The notion that a Democratic presidential candidate in the primary is somehow going to 'take California' is absurd, that's just not the reality," veteran Democratic political strategist Darry Sragow told CBS News.

Sragow has managed a number of statewide campaigns and is publisher of the California Target Book, which bills itself as the "essential toolbox for California political professionals." Aside from better-known candidates like Biden, Sragow sees name recognition as a top obstacle facing the massive field of White House hopefuls.

"Candidates just don't have the time and money to become well-known in California. And on top of everything else we're talking about, they're having to deal with California at the same time that they are doing something about the four states that precede us."

And while Biden may have a natural advantage in the state, he was one of the few candidates who decided to skip the state Democratic convention, a move criticized by party insiders.

"I think it's never a good idea to not show up, ignoring this opportunity to engage with so many grassroots delegates and activists," said Mullin.

First published on June 7, 2019 / 2:57 PM

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