(CN) – Released from the back-of-the-line June primaries of the past, California voters rushed the ballot box Tuesday with a dual purpose of impacting a presidential primary for the first time since 2008 and stabilizing the Democratic Party’s growing ideological rift.
With more delegates to offer than the first four early-primary states combined, California’s return to the Super Tuesday marquee was a hit with voters up and down the nation’s most populous state.
“This year feels important, California could actually matter,” said Sacramento voter Dalen Ruiz.
California’s last two presidential primaries came in June, with voters returning ballots well after candidates had secured their party nominations. Upset with voter turnout and lack of campaign appearances, critics pushed lawmakers to greenlight an earlier primary in order to boost excitement in the Golden State.
The decision to bump up the primary helped spur 81% of the state’s eligible voters to register for Tuesday, California’s highest rate for a presidential primary since 1952.
Ruiz is part of the record-high 20.6 million Californians who signed up to vote Super Tuesday and the engineer says he and his family are excited to help decide the Democratic primary. Ruiz, 39, wavered between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but ultimately marked Sanders.
“Bernie is built for the long run,” Ruiz said after dropping off his ballot at Centennial United Methodist Church in Sacramento.
The switch not only boosted registration, but vaulted California on the pecking order and forced candidates to appear and advertise in the once-forgotten state.
Once a race so crowded the candidates couldn’t share a debate stage, the Democratic roster has been whittled down to four main candidates, led by a pair of familiar faces looking to capitalize in California.
According to most statewide polls, pundits and experts, Sanders is the favorite to claim the largest share of California’s 415 pledged delegates. After finishing second to Hillary Clinton in California in 2016, the Democratic socialist has made more visits to California than any remaining Democratic candidate and is looking to pad his currently slim delegate lead over former Vice President Joe Biden.
Meanwhile Biden is riding the momentum of a decisive victory last week in South Carolina and hopes a sudden slew of endorsements from recent dropouts Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar will push him above the 15% threshold and rescue him in places where he hasn’t campaigned regularly, including California and Texas.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Warren round out the Super Tuesday contest.
Ashley Koning, professor and director of public interest polling at Rutgers University, says Super Tuesday could result in a geographical split: Sanders taking the West and Biden the South.
“Sanders has a really strong following among Hispanic and Latino voters in California, and this could be a large part of him being propelled to a double-digit lead over Biden,” Koning said. “But Biden by the same token has really strong leads among black voters as we saw in South Carolina; that’s going to continue in a lot of southern states that we’re encountering on Super Tuesday.”
To the chagrin of state Democrats, President Donald Trump is on the California ballot as well but faces no real competition in the state he lost to Clinton by 4 million votes. In late 2019, the California Supreme Court tossed a new law requiring Trump and other presidential candidates to release their taxes to gain access to the statewide primary ballot.
Down-ballot races are also sparking voter interest, including in San Diego County where voters turned out to replace convicted former Rep. Duncan Hunter in one of the last Republican strongholds in the Golden State. Hunter’s guilty plea this past December and his resignation from Congress marked the end of the Hunter family dynasty in a district which includes rural areas of northeast San Diego county and Riverside County.
Vying to replace him is former 49th Congressional District Rep. Darrell Issa, who opted not to run for re-election after being tapped for a position in the Trump administration which never came to be.
Matthew Quinn, 34, said he was voting for the former congressman and values Issa’s experience in Congress over other top Republican candidate for the seat, conservative talk radio host Carl DeMaio. Quinn also voted a second time for Trump, “saying he’s done everything he said he was going to do” and has “done a lot for all races.”
But second-time District 50 candidate and the sole Democrat on the ticket – Ammar Campa-Najjar – appealed to several voters who turned out to vote at United Methodist Church in El Cajon.
Rev. Julie Elkins, pastor of the church hosting the polling place said she voted for Campa-Najjar because he is “genuine and caring and he lost by so little last time.” Elkins said she voted for Biden on the presidential ticket after Buttigieg bowed out of the race over the weekend.
“I like Warren as well and I like she has a plan but this country needs stability right now,” Elkins said.
Paul H., 62, said he voted for Warren because he wants a president who has a vision for the country.
“She’s singing my song … People like Elizabeth Warren realize income inequality is important,” Paul said.
In Los Angeles, where millions are voting on new machines, voters at the Arroyo Seco Branch Library and All Saints Episcopal Church in the Highland Park community had no issues with voting machines and wait times were short or nonexistent.
Voters in LA County are weighing candidates for the hotly contested district attorney race in which incumbent Jackie Lacey faces challenges from former public defender Rachel Rossi and former San Francisco DA George Gascon.
Lacey has faced criticism from criminal justice reform groups and Black Lives Matter for her decision not to criminally charge officers in cases where they use deadly force against residents. A day before Super Tuesday, Lacey’s husband pointed a gun at Black Lives Matter activists who rang the couple’s doorbell seeking a meeting with her.
Highland Park resident Jo Zhang said she voted for Gascon after following news about Lacey from Black Lives Matter and other community groups.
Zhang said she dropped off her ballot at Arroyo Seco Branch and was thankful she’d waited after learning Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out of the race over the weekend.
“I guess that’s the benefit of procrastination is that you get to vote for a candidate still in the race,” said Zhang.
LA resident Trevor Olson ended up voting for Rossi and Sanders after consulting progressive voter guides.
Olson said Warren’s decision to stay in the race – despite poor results in the early primaries – has hurt progressive Democrats’ chances of impacting the 2020 cycle.
“She should do what establishment Democrats did and consolidate around Bernie. But I can see why it’s difficult to do that.”
Quanny Carr dropped off her mail-in ballot and told Courthouse News she has been pushing people around her to vote instead of pressing them to back a specific candidate.
“We can’t keep repeating history, we have to change the tides,” said Carr, who added she’s followed Sanders and Warren most closely in the race. “They’re both preaching to things that matter to me as a black person.”
As last-minute endorsements flew in from many of the Super Tuesday states, some of California’s most prominent Democrats remained on the sidelines. Former presidential candidate and four-term Gov. Jerry Brown, current Gov. Gavin Newsom, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Kamala Harris declined to publicly back a candidate.
Sacramento County resident Jasmine Muro said the lack of endorsements didn’t really cross her mind, but added she made her decision to vote for Biden over the weekend. Muro was part of the steady stream of voters armed with pink envelopes headed for a midtown Sacramento auditorium to deliver their votes.
But like in the other 13 states, an underlying storyline in California will be the performance of Bloomberg who will be appearing on ballots for the first time Tuesday.
Koning says Bloomberg is a true wildcard despite his heavy nationwide advertising blitz and rise in the polls. Outside of California, polls have him placing second or third in Texas and third in North Carolina, Virginia, and Massachusetts.
“The more we see him with unscheduled television and in debates, it may really have an impact on how voters interpret him beyond the commercials,” said Koning. “He’s of some concern, particularly to Biden since they’re in the same wing of the Democratic field.”
There are other questions to be answered in California’s primary, such as how many votes were given to candidates that have dropped out of the race and how long it will take to count the millions of votes.
Since absentee ballots went out in early February, half of the Democratic field has exited the race. Most Californians returned their ballots by mail in the last statewide election but voters who have already returned their ballots can’t change their vote if they selected one of the recent dropouts Klobuchar, Buttigieg or billionaire Tom Steyer.
Unlike the instant results announced in South Carolina, California could take days if not weeks to declare if the race is close due to the sheer number of mail-in ballots and the fact same-day registration will be available at all polling states.
According to Political Data Inc., just 23% of the 16 million ballots mailed have been returned ahead of Election Day.
“It may not be instant gratification for the candidates, media or for voters,” Koning reiterated. “There’s going to have to be a lot of patience going into the night.”