‘It’s the Wild West’: 2020 Democrats plot to crack California
At least six campaigns are having private discussions with California strategists over how to decipher the complicated primary landscape.
LOS ANGELES — The full promise and peril of California’s 2020 presidential primary is beginning to dawn on the Democratic field.
As part of an attempt to better understand and strategize around the state’s complicated politics and process, advisers to at least six Democratic campaigns or prospective candidates have in recent weeks begun speaking privately to Democratic strategists with California campaign experience — asking about the state’s delegate math, ballot-collection practices and early voting.
With its early March date and roughly 500 delegates at stake — nearly as many as Florida and New York combined — the need to master California’s complex political landscape is suddenly in sharp focus as various candidates look beyond the launch phase.
At least two campaigns have asked strategists specifically about the possibility of running a primary operation in California on a smaller budget, suggesting a potential effort to pick up delegates in smaller media markets in California’s rural, inland reaches while avoiding a confrontation with better-funded candidates in the expensive San Francisco and Los Angeles markets.
The strategists approached by various campaigns declined to be named or to publicly identify the campaigns to which they are speaking.
The overtures reflect the first steps by a sprawling cast of candidates reckoning with the significance of an early, high-stakes primary in the nation’s most populous state. Elections officials will start mailing ballots to early voters here about the same day Democrats caucus in Iowa, and millions of Californians will cast their ballots before New Hampshire Democrats go to the polls.
“They’re still figuring it out,” said Roger Salazar, a Sacramento-based operative. “California is one of those weird states because as much as New Hampshire and Iowa are all about organizing and field, California is so big that it’s mostly about message and being able to mass communicate.”
As one strategist who has spoken with advisers to multiple candidates put it, “It’s the Wild West. It’s the land of opportunity.”
The complexities of California’s early primary go beyond the schedule. The increasing prevalence of early voting has in recent years allowed pollsters to refine their use of the state’s voter file to poll voters as they submit their ballots, allowing them to release what amounts to real-time exit polls that could color perceptions of candidates weeks before election day.
In addition, the 2020 contest will be the first presidential primary in California in which campaign operatives are allowed to collect and turn in ballots for voters — a controversial practice known as “ballot harvesting” that could benefit highly organized campaigns.
“Nationally, people just aren’t aware of all the different changes and ways of California,” said Amanda Renteria, who served as national political director of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and ran briefly for California governor last year. “The big thing is where are the ballots coming from, and that will be different for every candidate … It’s just too expensive to do it everywhere, so where are your core California efforts going to be?”
Danielle Cendejas, a Democratic mail strategist whose firm did campaign mail for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, said she has already alerted print shops and mail houses in California to prepare for increased loads of campaign mailers early in 2020. Following an avalanche of campaign literature in California’s congested congressional races last year, campaigns were forced to scramble to find additional vendors to meet their demand. Cendejas said she has also advised those businesses ahead of 2020 to invest in additional infrastructure.
No candidate would appear to have a sharper edge in California than the state’s junior senator, Kamala Harris, who has previously won statewide elections and whose team is stocked with longtime California-based strategists steeped in state politics.
But Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) campaign manager, Addisu Demissie, ran California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s campaign last year, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spent weeks crisscrossing the state in his unsuccessful 2016 campaign, when California’s presidential primary was held in June.
At least two political consultants with experience in California politics are involved in a “Draft Beto” effort that could benefit former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), if he enters the race.
Still, aside from fundraising in California, most of the rest of the emerging field of Democratic presidential candidates is unfamiliar with the state’s terrain.
“California, the ongoing presumption here among people is that it takes a lot of money to go on TV,” said David Keith, a Democratic strategist who ran Rep. Jimmy Gomez’s successful special election campaign in the Los Angeles area in 2017. “Well, they’re right. There are also things in California that are unique to California, and that’s just not the rate of television … Name ID’s going to mean a lot, but how quickly you can plug into local party politics is going to mean a lot more.”
The presidential campaigns have for the most part delayed hiring operatives in California since the early return on such spending is limited. Staff hires in Iowa or New Hampshire draw national news attention to a candidate that a hire in California likely could not. And candidates must grapple not only with California, but a roster of significant states — including Texas, Massachusetts, Alabama and North Carolina — that are expected to hold their elections on the same day in early March 2020.
“The campaigns’ focus will inevitably be on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. And then boom … they’re going to be scrambling,” said Bill Carrick, who managed Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign and also advises Eric Garcetti, before the Los Angeles mayor announced he would not run in 2020.
While there’s been little rush to staff up here or to begin organizing a field operation here, no prize will be bigger than California and its massive delegate haul. Effectively mounting his last stand here in 2016, Sanders drew thousands of supporters to rallies across the state in a losing effort to Clinton, and Harris last month addressed a crowd of more than 20,000 people when she began her campaign in Oakland. In a nod to the significance of early organizing, a call to join her texting program was emblazoned on the lectern.
In a nod to California’s significance, Booker and former Vice President Joe Biden, among other Democratic contenders, phoned Garcetti shortly after he announced he would not run, according to two sources familiar with the calls.
“To build a field program that’s going to work, you have to start early,” said Buffy Wicks, who served as Obama’s field director in California in 2008 and ran Clinton’s campaign here eight years later. “Your GOTV operation is going to start way early on … It’s just a very different operation here.”
Wicks, who is now a California state assemblywoman and a Harris supporter, predicted campaigns would pick up steam in the state this summer, a schedule in line with previous primaries. Dispatched to California in 2007 for Obama, she recalled training volunteers to use the state’s voter file and online technology built by volunteers on their off hours from Google — establishing what she called a “lay level of leadership” in the campaign.
“The legacy of that is we have a lot of activists in the state who are trained and know how to organize,” Wicks said, adding that even after the primary, the effect of organizing Democrats in a state of 40 million people can be significant.
“The other thing that California provides, which I think people maybe don’t totally appreciate, is this,” Wicks said. “After the California primary, whoever comes out of that big Super Tuesday, California quickly becomes a phone bank for the nation.”