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The hugely influential — and complicated — California primary, explained

It’s got a whole lot of delegates, and a whole lot of quirks.

Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigning in Los Angeles on March 1, 2020.
Michael Tullberg/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

California, one of the biggest prizes of the Democratic primary, is, well, complicated.

The state, which has a whopping 415 pledged delegates (10 percent of delegates in the race), is poised to play a significant role in this year’s nomination process after moving its primary up to Super Tuesday, March 3.

But because of its ballot-counting quirks, the result might not be clear for weeks. In addition to the expected lag around results, it’s a difficult state to compete in because of its size and pricey media markets. To do well there, candidates must make sure they conduct outreach to a diverse electorate: 31 percent of eligible voters are Latino, 15 percent are Asian American, and 7 percent are African American.

According to recent polling, Sen. Bernie Sanders is set to secure a solid win in the state — the RealClearPolitics average has him 12 points ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden, who’s trailed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Winning in California would be a major boon to Sanders’s delegate count, and a likely sign of strength in reaching a more diverse coalition of voters this cycle.

Democrats’ proportional delegate allocation rules also take on new meaning in the state, simply because of how expansive it is: Candidates can obtain delegates by either winning 15 percent of the vote statewide or hitting 15 percent in a single congressional district. Since the state has more than 53 districts, candidates could obtain delegates by targeting clusters of districts that they see as good prospects.

Joe Biden won the endorsement of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at a campaign event with the United Firefighters of Los Angeles on January 10, 2020.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

“In its infinite wisdom, the Democratic Party has rendered the presidential primary unnavigable,” quipped Darry Sragow, a longtime California strategist. “Because we divide up the pledged delegates by congressional district, and there’s also statewide, doing the math of how you sweep California is an impossible task.”

If three or four candidates hit the necessary 15 percent thresholds, they’ll be splitting up a hefty number of delegates. What’s more, those who do well in California could gain momentum, a valuable asset in a closely contested race.

Winning California is expensive — and complicated

The key thing that strategists across the state emphasize is that campaigning in California takes a lot of money. Home to roughly 40 million people, the state also has more than 12 media markets, including two particularly expensive ones that include San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Because of the state’s size, television is among the best mediums to connect with voters, and it can cost millions to even make a dent (a dynamic that gives a leg up to better-funded candidates, or wealthier ones, like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg).

“The state is almost five different countries with different interests and demographics,” Sacramento-based Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio said. “The way that people think in the Bay Area is different than the way people think in the more agricultural Central Valley.”

As a result, retail politics is a bit trickier in California, and candidates have to be very particular about which districts they invest in.

“You’re faced with the task of deciding which congressional districts are fertile, and which ones are barren for you, because you have to make the 15 percent threshold to get anything from a congressional district,” Sragow said.

Campaigns need to conduct sustained and repeated outreach to communities in order to effectively turn them out and engage with the policies they care about, says Mindy Romero, the founder of the California Civic Engagement Project. In the past, when Latino and AAPI voters have had low turnout, campaigns have neglected them, spurring a self-fulfilling cycle.

“We are substantially a minority-white state, and so a very important question is what’s the Latino vote looking like, what’s the Asian vote looking like,” said Sragow. If the gains during the 2018 midterms were any indication, turnout is set to see a sizable jump this cycle from voters of color.

So who’s going to win? And how many of the 415 delegates will they get?

The pledged delegates in California, like all other states in the Democratic primary, are awarded on a proportional basis.

Here’s how it breaks down in the Golden State: Candidates that hit the 15 percent threshold in the state will be able to access a pool of 144 delegates, which will be allocated proportionally depending on how much of the vote they received. Additionally, every congressional district has four to seven delegates of its own, based on its population and past voting patterns in 2012 and 2016. The district-level delegates — a total of 271 — are allocated proportionally to the candidates who receive 15 percent or more of the vote in that district as well.

This arrangement could mean that a handful of candidates rack up a whole lot of delegates in the state if others in the field do not reach the 15 percent threshold, and are thereby disqualified from getting any delegates at the district or state levels.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Los Angeles on August 21, 2019.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

“Two candidates can get 40 percent of the vote but take in 100 percent of the delegates if none of the other candidates reach the viability threshold,” said Monmouth University’s Patrick Murray.

It’s a dynamic that was more likely before Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out and cleared the field a bit. But it could still benefit candidates who are performing better in the state relative to the rest of the field: The RCP average on Tuesday morning only had Sanders, Biden, and Warren clearing the 15 percent statewide threshold.

Sanders’s campaign, specifically, is one that Maviglio credits with strategically engaging in the state, particularly when it comes to outreach to Latino voters. He’s currently leading in the state’s RealClearPolitics polling average with 35 percent support, with former Vice President Joe Biden coming in second at 23 percent following his landslide win in South Carolina.

If that holds, Sanders could well take the lion’s share of the statewide delegates and perform strongly in the districts the campaign has focused on as well.

Despite the challenges posed by the California market, Sanders’s team has been heavily focused on taking a grassroots approach in the communities where it’s set up offices.

“We have put our offices in predominantly Latino communities, and we’ve been on the ground for the better part of a year,” says Sanders’s California communications director Anna Bahr.

Sanders’s campaign is at the forefront of those that have aimed to establish a long-term presence in the state. Its operations include 105 staffers and 23 offices. Bloomberg, too, has amassed a sizable staff: He has 300 staffers on the ground and more than 24 offices. Warren has a smaller presence: She has 48 staffers and four offices. Biden’s team, meanwhile, declined to share staffing numbers and noted that it had an office located in East Los Angeles.

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters during a campaign rally in Santa Ana, California, on February 21, 2020.
Ronen Tivony/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

In addition to his physical presence in the state, Bloomberg has also poured in at least $36 million in television advertising as part of a larger strategy to make a mark on Super Tuesday, a move that’s made him virtually omnipresent for many voters. He’s seen some gains from this approach (jumping from 4 percent to 13 percent in the polls in under a month) — though he’s still in fourth place, according to RCP.

“I got three mail pieces yesterday alone from him, and two the day before,” said Maviglio.

Plus, the state has some unique voting quirks

There are some quirks about the California primary that are also worth keeping in mind: For one, mail-in voting makes the process incredibly accessible in the state, so much so that people can postmark their ballots up until midnight on election day. This arrangement is great for voter participation, but it also means that the result probably won’t be known for days after Super Tuesday.

“Most Californians vote by mail, and votes can be mailed on election day and still counted,” says University of San Diego political science professor Casey Dominguez. “So our vote totals on election day might change, perhaps consequentially, over the course of two weeks after March 3.”

Early voting for the California presidential primary election has begun. Fifteen counties in California have transitioned from traditional polling places to “vote centers” that allow residents the freedom to vote at any voting center in their county.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

As Cameron Peters has written for Vox, California also has a lot of provisional ballots — ballots given to voters on Election Day if their eligibility is in question — and this can slow the counting process as well.

In addition to the timing associated with ballot counting in the state, the 53 congressional districts will be allocating delegates individually based on which candidates have reached the 15 percent threshold in their respective districts, a process that could take some time, too.

“We may not know for a week, or several weeks after the primary, who won how many delegates — because the delegates are allocated by congressional district,” says USC political science professor Bob Shrum.

The lag in the California outcome is expected every election cycle, but it hasn’t failed to fuel speculation about who the winner might be before votes have been fully counted.

Because of how long the process takes, theories could also emerge about why results are not instantaneous, especially in the wake of the Iowa caucuses fiasco. As California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told NPR, the pacing of this arrangement is intentional and is about making sure voters’ contributions get properly counted.

“We have a lot of policies and procedures in place to both maximize the accessibility for all eligible citizens to be registered to vote and to cast their ballots,” he said. “But also all the security measures in place to make sure that all ballots are counted, counted as cast, and accounted for.”

The impact of the primary is expected to be widely felt. California is one of the most populous states in the country, and its pledged delegates comprise roughly a fifth of the total delegate haul that a candidate needs to win the Democratic nomination.

Depending on the outcomes in the many other states voting on Super Tuesday, California could wind up making a decisive statement on who the nominee will be — eventually.


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