California wants to pick the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee

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Story highlights

  • California's presidential primary could be on Super Tuesday in 2020
  • California's argument: The state has taken a leading role in the Democratic resistance

(CNN)California is poised to make a big move up in the primary calendar -- dramatically changing the dynamics of a 2020 race now in its earliest stages.

State lawmakers are expected to vote Friday on a bill that would move California's primary to the beginning of March -- right after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina on the calendar.
That would likely put California's contest on Super Tuesday -- turning the date into a massive delegate haul that could effectively seal the Democratic presidential nomination.
    Their argument: The state has taken a leading role in the Democratic resistance to President Donald Trump -- and it ought to have a similarly hefty role in selecting the nominee to face him in 2020.
    "California is the most populous state in the nation, the most diverse state in the nation and has the largest economy of any state in the nation. And we ought to have a significant say in who the nominees for president are," said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a leading advocate of the change.
    Though the 2020 race is too far off to predict how California's move would alter the dynamics, Democratic operatives and party members in California said a few changes seem certain.
    The issue set candidates must address would change -- with environmental issues, in particular, taking a more prominent role. And California's diverse set of voters -- the state is home to one-fourth of the nation's Latinos -- would heavily contrast the overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire.
    "By having an earlier voice for candidates of all parties, for that matter, would make the candidates pay attention to issues that Californians care about, like health care access, like environmental protection, like diversity -- not just talking immigration issues but workforce issues," Padilla said.
    Candidates' ability to raise huge sums of money in a hurry would also become much more important. Unlike the small-scale retail politics that dominate Iowa and New Hampshire, California requires massive investment in television ads in expensive markets.
    Then, there's the slate of potential presidential candidates from California.
    Sen. Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti get most of the buzz. But Gov. Jerry Brown -- who'd be 82 in 2020, but is close in age to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and ran for president twice before -- is another figure to watch.
    They would start with advantages that go beyond name ID. If California votes early in the process, the donor-rich state's biggest Democratic funders could wait to see how their home-state allies fare before backing other candidates.
    One reason California Democrats are eager to make the primary move: There are few reasons not to.
    Under the Democratic National Committee's 2016 rules -- which will be rewritten next year for the 2020 cycle -- California could make the move without any penalty.
    But if the rules are largely unchanged, the state could lose its pool of "bonus" delegates.
    California had 475 pledged delegates in 2016. Of those, 70 were "bonus" delegates awarded to states that held their primaries and caucuses toward the end of the calendar.
    The pool of a total of 277 "bonus" delegates nationally was designed as an incentive for states to stagger their contests, rather than rushing to the front of the calendar. If the DNC opts to keep that bonus pool -- and the same goal of rewarding late-voting states -- California would no longer stand to benefit.
    Still, DNC pledged delegates have traditionally been divvied up by population and by how well Democratic presidential nominees performed in each state in the last three presidential elections. Under those guidelines, California would remain -- by far -- the most delegate-rich state.
    And the extra delegates didn't matter much when the nomination was already wrapped up by the time the race reached California in previous cycles, Padilla said.
    There are important caveats. Unlike Republicans in some states, Democrats award delegates proportionately -- not on a winner-take-all basis. That means only a blowout in California and other Super Tuesday states would effectively end the race.
    California also held an early primary in 2008. It voted in February -- and Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama by eight percentage points, showing the limitation of its influence.
    Other than that race, though, California Democrats have had little influence on the Democratic nomination since Robert Kennedy was killed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles following his 1968 Democratic primary victory there. And California Democrats say they are desperate to change that.
    "The rules for 2020 haven't been written or rewritten yet, so all the more reason for California to make this move now -- and we'll see what the DNC decides to do later, if anything, in terms of changing the rules," Padilla said. "The current schedule, with the primary in June, practically makes us irrelevant in the nomination process. By moving it to March, we'll certainly increase the voice of California voters."