California’s presidential primary is up for grabs. How to win it is the question

Kamala Harris has left for Iowa. Joe Biden decided to skip a third major California event. Visits from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been few and far between.

Democratic candidates for president flocked to California after the state bumped up its presidential primary to March 3, 2020. Twenty-four of the 26 who opted to run came to the state in the first months of their campaigns, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of their visits.

But the campaign trail in the Golden State is largely empty three months before mail balloting begins on Feb. 3. Political experts suggest the lack of attention is a sign that crafting a strategy just for California is nearly impossible.

They say the sheer size of the state, the diversity of its communities and Democrats’ complicated rules for picking delegates across 53 congressional districts make California a much tougher challenge than Iowa or New Hampshire.

“I would have no idea what to do,” said Darry Sragow, who has served as campaign manager for five statewide races in California, including three for governor and two for U.S. Senate.

“Given how complicated the process is for picking up delegates, the size of the state and media markets, this is an incredibly expensive state in which to campaign,” he said. “What you are finding is campaigns aren’t doing it.”

The campaigns say they understand California is important, representing about one-tenth of the nation’s delegates. Mail balloting starts Feb. 3 — the day of the Iowa caucuses. California is also essential because of its abundance of wealthy donors.

Yet as California’s March 3 primary quickly approaches, the major candidates are focusing on Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which all hold their election day earlier. Harris, the California senator, last week pulled staff out of her home state to go “all-in on Iowa.”

Zoom in to see a city in more detail. Click on a candidate to see details of their visit
Map: Nathaniel Levine • Compiled by Bryan Anderson

“You’ve got to have some momentum coming in here, which means doing well in those first four states,” said Bill Carrick, a top Democratic strategist in California. “You have to do pretty well. Since this modern primary system started in 1972, only one time has somebody been the (Democratic) nominee who didn’t win either Iowa or New Hampshire or both, and that was Bill Clinton in 1992.”

By March 3, Carrick suspects Democrats will have two or three viable candidates left, with another two “hanging on for dear life.”

Most voters won’t fill out their mail ballots until late February, he said, meaning what the candidates do in other states could greatly affect their chances of winning California.

Candidates will also need a nuanced strategy for picking up delegates.

“My advice would be to set your sights low and micro-target. Figure out which constituencies and therefore which congressional districts you have the best shot of picking off,” Sragow said.

He said Biden should target districts with many African-American voters, for example, while South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg should build his support in districts where gay voters are concentrated.

Buttigieg has appeared 49 times in California this year, the most of any 2020 candidate. He is polling in fifth place in the state and has received millions in contributions from 35 fundraisers. His campaign hired a state director last month and plans to expand its operations.

The state is up for grabs, Buttiigeg told The Bee after a September visit to West Sacramento.

“California has been extremely receptive to our message, and now we need to back that up with a ground game,” Buttigieg said. “It’s different organizing a state as big as California than it is a state like Iowa. But we think it’s going to be important because we sense that California is wide open.”

Kamala Harris drops in California

Harris, the youngest of California’s two U.S. senators, has dropped precipitously in both single-state and national polls since what was widely considered a strong performance in the first Democratic debate. After Buttigieg, she has been the most active in the state, with 32 appearances that included 14 fundraisers.

A September poll from the Public Policy Institute of California had her at fourth place with 8 percent support — a sizable drop from a first-place finish with 19 percent in July.

The Oakland native most recently returned to the state in early October for a CNN town on gay rights and a labor union forum, but she spent the rest of the month almost exclusively in Iowa. The campaign announced last week it would move several California staff members out of the state as part of a broader effort to go “all-in on Iowa.”

Fellow Californian Tom Steyer has held nine events in the state since announcing his candidacy in July. Steyer will rely on the $100 million war chest he pledged to use on his candidacy, with a lot of that money targeted in the four earliest voting states. He’s spent millions on ads to gain support from Iowans and has been a frequent visitor to that state.

Where’s Joe Biden?

Biden, Warren and Sanders are clustered at the top of the polls in California. But the former vice president has stayed behind the scenes in the state.

He has participated in six events, making a few stops at local restaurants, while holding 21 private fundraisers.

Biden did not attend the California Democratic Party’s convention in June and did not show up in person for the Democratic National Committee’s summer meetings in San Francisco in August.

He most recently declined an invitation to appear at the state party’s convention in Long Beach. Instead, he will host a public event on Nov. 14 at a place yet to be announced before traveling to Nevada, according to his campaign.

The campaign did not comment on Biden’s string of absences but said in a statement that the former vice president “is looking forward to returning to the West Coast to meet with voters face-to-face” because he “knows that the voices of Nevadans and Californians are crucial in the Democratic primary.”

Last week, Biden’s campaign named Jessica Mejía, former western regional political director for Hillary Clinton, as its California state director.

Warren, Sanders rally voters

Both Warren and Sanders have relied on large public rallies to gain the attention of California voters, though Sanders has also held a pair of fundraisers with scores of small-dollar contributors. Each candidate has made five trips to the state.

Warren has seen a surge nationally and in early states. In California, she moved from 7 percent in April to 23 percent in September, according to polls from Quinnipiac University and the Public Policy Institute of California.

Nicole DeMont, Warren’s California state director, said the campaign will open up its first two offices over the next month in Oakland and Los Angeles. In the meantime, the campaign is hosting a series of “Warren Weekends” in dozens of places across the state to train volunteers.

As the campaign’s on-the-ground operation begins, Warren has focused her attention on large rallies and brief, intimate interactions with thousands of attendees. She’s appeared at 10 events and held large rallies or town halls in Glendale, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Like some of the other candidates, Warren has also sought to inject herself directly into California politics in recent months. She wrote an opinion piece in The Sacramento Bee in August to express her support for Assembly Bill 5 — a proposal from Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez to reclassify certain “independent contractors” as full-time workers.

Sanders entered California with the most robust network of volunteers, thanks in large part to his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2016.

He has more than 20 California campaign workers on his payroll, including a deputy campaign director, according to Anna Bahr, a spokeswoman for Sanders’ California campaign. Sanders leads the presidential field in staffing up in California.

The Vermont senator has participated in 21 events and two fundraisers in California since the start of his campaign, including a well-attended rally in Sacramento. He’s also toured Paradise, the site of last year’s deadly Camp Fire.

Bahr said the campaign is focused on young and Latino voters and has held more than 3,000 organizing events across the state since February. She noted more than 730,000 residents have taken action with the campaign. Some Californians just donated, while others volunteered at rallies or hosted watch parties.

“When you’re spending time not doing big-dollar fundraisers, you have time to do rallies and talk to supporters,” Bahr said. “That has been his strategy the first time he ran for president, and that’s a priority for him this time.”

In all, the candidates made 308 appearances in California through October.

But in a state like California, it’s not enough, Sragow said.

“The only way to get noticed in this state is to be out here a lot.,” he said. “That does not make much of a dent.”

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.