SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Often stashed innocuously at the end of the presidential primary cycle, candidates once treated California delegates like airport souvenirs rather than fuel needed to extend their White House bids.
Yet as the state lawmakers that pushed the primary date up from June to Super Tuesday intended, California’s 494 delegates are no longer excess cargo but a potential gold mine for the field of Democratic candidates.
“Absolutely California is more important now than it was in 2016,” says Rafael Návar, California director for the Bernie Sanders campaign.
In a last-ditch effort to pry away potential superdelegates, Sanders made a serious bid to win California in June 2016 even though rival Hillary Clinton already had a lock on the nomination. Sanders’ barnstorming drew a spate of excitement in a state not known for its presidential rallies, though he ultimately finished second to Clinton.
But for the first time since 2008 when it held a February primary, Sanders and many of the other Democratic candidates are prioritizing California and the 20 million residents who have registered to vote on March 3.
With millions of ballots already in the hands of voters, campaigns cognizant of the state’s penchant for early-voting are pooling resources in the once-forgotten state.
Návar says Sanders’ campaign has the most California offices of any candidate with 22, while representatives for former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said they were adding more offices ahead of Super Tuesday.
The campaigns’ arms race is the result of a 2017 decision by California lawmakers to push up the primary from June to March. State Democrats said they were irritated with the reduced role the nation’s most populous state played in 2016 and wanted to increase its clout with the presidential candidates.
The state will now vote with 13 other states on Super Tuesday, including Texas, Massachusetts, Virginia and Colorado.
Chris Masami Myers, state director for Bloomberg, says there is no doubt California is an integral part of the Democratic nomination process.
“I think it’s so important that Californians make a difference,” Myers said. “In the past we’ve been kind of a protest vote; when you’re in June it’s kind of all said and done. So we’re reaching out to voters and they’re realizing ‘Hey, we have a chance to pick our nominee’.”
Joining Myers and Návar at a political talk hosted by the Sacramento Press Club were representatives from the Warren and Biden campaigns. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign was a late scratch from the event.
The talk comes as the candidates’ interest and voter excitement is swelling in the Golden State, with a record 20.4 million registered to vote in next month’s Super Tuesday. According to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, over 80% of the state’s eligible voters have signed up – the highest rate for a presidential primary since 1952.
Democrats (44%) continue to hold the registration advantage over Republicans (23%), but the key to the election could be the candidates’ ability to glean votes from the over 5 million Californians registered with no party preference. The potentially invaluable group of voters can participate in the Democratic primary, but they need to take the additional step of requesting a ballot from their county office.
The state directors all said a major focus of their California strategies has been making sure the quarter of the electorate registered without a party know how to vote in the Democratic primary.
Last week, Návar and the Sanders campaign held an event at the state Capitol to reach out to no party preference voters. He says the campaign has also created a mobile app to help identify and make it easier for campaign volunteers to contact no party voters.
“We’ve done a full-court press here; we’re pushing but we think more can be done,” Návar said.
In order to reach the massive bloc of Democratic and no-party voters, the candidates are navigating through the traditional hurdles that come with campaigning in the nation’s most populous state. Advertising is notoriously expensive in California’s major media markets and candidates are forced to pick and choose where to appear in a state that has 10 cities with populations over 350,000.
According to the Sacramento Bee’s candidate tracker, Sanders has made the most public appearances in California with 33, followed by Buttigieg (24), Tom Steyer (23), Klobuchar (18), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (17), Bloomberg (16), Biden (14) and Warren and Andrew Yang (both 13). Buttigieg and Biden have held 44 and 29 fundraisers, respectively, while no other candidate has had more than four.
Most of the events tracked by the Bee have been in Los Angeles and San Francisco, cities nearly 400 miles apart.
Along with financial and logistical hurdles, campaigns must also weigh the possibility of leaving California empty-handed under the California Democratic Party’s delegate system. Delegates are divvied up between the state’s 53 House districts and candidates must gain at least 15% of the vote in a district in order to secure its proportional share.
Recent polling shows Sanders leading with likely Democratic voters, followed closely by Warren and Biden. The three are the only candidates meeting the coveted 15% threshold as of the Jan. 28 Berkeley IGS Poll.
When asked what a successful California result looks like, Návar reiterated Sanders is hoping to win the state and Biden California director Jessica Mejia predicted a top-3 finish. Myers said Bloomberg is aiming for at least 15%, while Warren’s state director Nicole DeMont wouldn’t give a benchmark.
After going toe-to-toe with Buttigieg in Iowa and now leading the polls on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Návar says Sanders is well positioned to take advantage of the new primary date and strike California gold on Super Tuesday.
“We have the most donors, we have the most volunteers, we have the most energy,” Návar said.