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Bernie Sanders sizes up California

Sen. Bernie Sanders recently scheduled a campaign appearance in a non-competitive House district in Oakland for late October. | Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Elections

The Vermont senator and other top 2020 prospects are quietly moving to exploit the state’s new primary date.

LOS ANGELES — When Bernie Sanders ends his midterm election campaign tour at the end of October, it’s no coincidence that his last stop will be in California.

Democratic presidential contenders are quietly moving to exploit a newfound opening here, created by the state’s decision to move its primary up to March 2020.

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As a result of the new primary date, California elections officials will start mailing ballots to voters about the same day Iowa Democrats caucus. Millions of ballots will be cast here before New Hampshire voters go to the polls.

The significance of the calendar change is becoming increasingly apparent, with Sanders recently scheduling a campaign appearance in an non-competitive House district in Oakland in late October, Joe Biden rallying Democrats in Orange County last week, and Kamala Harris, California’s junior senator, likely to conduct a swing through her home state just before Election Day.

Numerous other potential candidates have visited privately with donors in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. And at least four Californians — Harris, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Rep. Eric Swalwell and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer — are contemplating presidential runs.

“It might not surprise you that he’s ending in California, considering that there may be a presidential campaign around the corner, and California’s going to be a very important state,” said Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, who noted Oakland-based Rep. Barbara Lee is a friend of Sanders and is up for reelection.

The prevalence of early voting in California is poised to give the state even greater influence than its position on the primary schedule dictates — this year, for example, more than two-thirds of votes were cast on vote-by-mail ballots in California’s June primary.

Early voting is also expected to have a less obvious, though no less significant, impact on the campaign: Since pollsters in recent years have used the state’s voter file to poll voters as they submit their ballots, California will be delivering the equivalent of real-time exit polls that are expected to color perceptions elsewhere in the country as other early states are voting.

In a discussion with David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama, on his podcast recently, Harris adviser Ace Smith slyly called the earlier California primary “a fun thing,” noting, “The other thing to keep in mind is that we have, as you well know, we have … 29-day early voting.”

Axelrod responded, “So the day Iowa votes, California will begin voting, and that should be an enormous advantage to a candidate who is from California, which will … have about what, 12 percent of the delegates.”

Democratic presidential contenders have been mulling their approaches to California since officials passed a measure last year to move the state’s primary from June to early March, just after nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

“With California moving up, it’s like … 50 to 60 percent of delegates are going to be decided by Super Tuesday or something,” said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster who worked on Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “It means that we go back to the even more front-loaded system … People are going to be voting in California when they’re voting in early states. So California becomes the fifth early state, essentially.”

It’s hard to overstate the potential impact on what is shaping up to be a wide-open Democratic field. The state’s expensive media markets are likely to disadvantage all but the best-funded candidates, while its massive trove of delegates could elevate a candidacy beyond reach — or end one.

Donald Trump

The implications of California’s early voting are only now beginning to sink in.

“We’re going to know more about literally millions of ballots that have been cast in California before the first person votes in New Hampshire, and that’s a real impact of California moving up,” said Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., the voter data firm used by both Republicans and Democrats in California. “We’re going to have almost immediately pollsters — public and private — looking at those votes that have been cast, and being able to say with really good predictability what those early ballots are saying.”

He said, “It’s going to be a huge impact.”

Bob Shrum, a longtime political strategist who served on multiple Democratic presidential campaigns, said California could “be the decider if there’s a split going on and suddenly you get to California with this huge trove of delegates.” California Gov. Jerry Brown, who ran for president three times, said in an interview recently that the early primary will “make California relevant.” And Brown’s likely successor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, predicted recently that the California primary will be “determinative.”

Former New Mexico Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who ran for president in 2008, said the California primary could improve the prospects of Western candidates who he said “in the past have had difficulties because of the early focus on caucuses in Eastern primaries.”

In 2020, he said, “I think those candidates from the West have a better chance because of the early California primary … I think a Western candidate has a better chance than before.”

But Sanders, the Vermont senator, has a record of campaigning in the state, effectively mounting his last stand in California in 2016, when the primary was held in June. That year, Sanders drew thousands of young people to his rallies up and down the state, receiving 46 percent of the primary vote in his losing campaign to Hillary Clinton.

His planned appearance later this month in Oakland, in the heavily Democratic San Francisco area, suggests a repeat performance just over the horizon. Lee doesn’t really need Sanders’ help — she is all-but-certain to win reelection. But for Sanders and other potential presidential candidates, the visit reflects the significance of the Democratic base voters heading into 2020.

Sanders “has a very committed and strong constituency out there,” Longabaugh said. “And it makes sense for him to conclude his midterm barnstorming in California.”

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