(CNN)As in every recent Democrat primary race, the 2020 contest will begin in two virtually all-white states, with the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in early February. But after that the next month of the primary calendar is dominated by states across the Sun Belt where non-white voters comprise a large share, and often an absolute majority, of the electorate.
The calendar is shifting Democratic influence in 2020 to voters of color
This decisive turn toward diversity, reinforced by California's decision to move up its primary to Super Tuesday, represents a potentially critical new wrinkle in the nomination process. The pivot begins with Nevada and South Carolina, where contests will be held in the second half of February. The tilt toward diversity then explodes in early March when big Sun Belt states from Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in the southeast to Arizona and Texas along with California across the southwest will all crowd together on the calendar.
This concentration of highly diverse states in the contest's first stages underscores the potential influence of Hispanic, and especially African-American voters, in picking the winner from a Democratic presidential field likely to be the party's largest since at least 1976.
That could advantage the candidates best positioned to appeal to minority voters, particularly African Americans -- a list led by black Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, as well as former Vice President Joe Biden, who's still considering whether to run. Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who specializes in studying African-American voters, predicts that if any candidate emerges from South Carolina as the clear favorite among blacks -- as Barack Obama did in 2008 and Hillary Clinton did in 2016 -- that person will be very hard to beat for the nomination.
The question is what happens if the growing ranks of minority voters splinter among the field and fail to consolidate around any one candidate.
"If we come out of South Carolina with no candidate with a clear consolidation for the African-American vote, we are in for a long, drawn-out process," Belcher says. "It is going to be hand-to-hand combat from state to state to state."
A new CNN analysis of exit poll data published last week from all of the contests in the 2008 and 2016 Democratic races found that the party's electorate is growing steadily more racially diverse, better-educated and more heavily tilted toward women. The analysis found that in the 2016 race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, women cast nearly three-fifths of all the votes, college graduates just over half the votes, and people of color nearly two-fifths, according to the cumulative analysis by CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta of the exit polls conducted in 27 states.
But while the influence of women in Democratic primaries is true in states all over the country, the party's deepening racial diversity is concentrated much more in states across the Sun Belt than in other areas. And those states are concentrated near the front of the primary calendar.
The race, as always, will still start in states dominated by white voters: In 2016, according to the exit polls, whites represented 91% of the Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa and 93% of the New Hampshire primary voters. But the 2020 calendar will then turn swiftly and sharply toward states with much greater diversity. In Nevada, the third contest, non-whites represented over two-fifths of the caucus-goers last time, with Latinos accounting for about half of that total, according to exit polls. In South Carolina, which follows, African-Americans cast just over three-fifths of the ballots in 2016 and all minorities nearly two-thirds, according to exit polls.
Diverse states then dominate Super Tuesday, the big roster of contests that will vote on March 3, 2020, and the races that follow through mid-March. Through March 17, the Democratic candidates will face significant Latino populations in Texas and California on Super Tuesday and then Florida and Arizona on March 17. (These states will be critical if former San Antonio Mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro has any hope of breaking into the top tier.)
Starting on Super Tuesday, large black populations will vote through mid-March in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Illinois. In all of these states, minorities comprised at least about two-fifths of the 2018 vote, and they reached majority status in several of them, including Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. Given the overall trends in the party, Democratic strategists consider it likely that the non-white share of the vote in virtually all of these states will be higher in 2020 than it was in 2016.
Some predominantly white states interrupt this pattern through mid-March. Vermont, Massachusetts and Oklahoma vote on Super Tuesday and on March 10 they will be followed by Michigan, Ohio and Missouri, three Midwestern states where whites cast about 70% of the 2016 votes. But even those three states feature substantial African-American electorates.
Apart from those contests, most of the states where whites represent the largest share of the primary electorate don't vote until the second half of the primary calendar. That list ranges from Wisconsin in early April to Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania later in the month, to Nebraska, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oregon in May.