By Ben Christopher | CalMatters
At long last, the results are mostly in. And as was clear on election night, Vermont Sen. and Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders won the California primary. In a very crowded field, he landed 8 percentage points ahead of second-place finisher Joe Biden.
Also clear — abundantly clear since Sanders just dropped out of the race: California didn’t matter as much as politicos here had hoped.
Biden, the former vice president who holds a more than 300 delegate lead nationally, was projected to win a significant share of the candidate-nominating delegates in California. Third-place finisher Sen. Elizabeth Warren failed to crack the 15% threshold required to win statewide delegates, although she and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg will pick up a few at the congressional-district level.
And Democrats running for Congress and the state Legislature have reason to be optimistic that they’ll keep the many seats they swept in 2018 — though one big caveat applies.
State officials have yet to certify the final electoral tally from the March 3 election, but California’s notoriously unhurried vote counting process is finally drawing to a close. At last count, about 9.6 million ballots have been recorded, 5.7 million of them cast in the Democratic presidential contest.
With fewer than 60,000 left to go, the results are more-or-less baked.
Here, we crunch the numbers to see what they tell us about what actually happened on Super Tuesday and what that might portend for the upcoming general election.
Winner take most
Given the crowded field of 20, Sanders’ victory was secured with just over a third of the vote, about 36%. The Vermont senator garnered some 450,000 votes over Biden.
Sanders victory here was one of the few bright spots for the senator that night — or any election night since. It also threw cold water on the notion that by moving its primary election from June to March, California would have a bigger say in determining the Democratic party’s nominee.
As went California, so undeniably did not go much of the rest of the nation.
Though a plurality of California Democrats went for Sanders, he hasn’t won a state primary since March 10. On April 8, he bowed to the inevitable and dropped out.
He joins Warren and Bloomberg, both of whom dropped out of the race shortly after the last California ballots were cast. The two got 13% and 12% respectively. None of the other 16 candidates running broke 5%.
Despite that sliced-and-diced electoral outcome, Sanders and Biden are set to take the bulk of California’s nominating delegates. That’s thanks to the peculiar rules that govern the Democratic primary process.
A reminder: Delegates are the rank-and-file Democrats who plan to convene at the party convention, now rescheduled from July to August because of the COVID-19 pandemic, to formally pick the nominee. In California, pledged delegates are awarded in two ways: About a third are allocated based on how candidates do statewide, and the rest are assigned based on the results in each of California’s 53 congressional districts. All of those delegates are divvied up proportional to their share of the vote, but only to a point.
If a candidate didn’t win more than 15% of the vote — either across California or in any one district — they get nothing. That’s why 11% of the California voters who participated in the primary will have their assorted ballots translate into a grand total of zero delegates.
It’s also why Warren and Bloomberg, who together earned about one-in-four primary votes, will get less than 5% of the delegates. All of those delegates come from second- and third-place performances in certain pockets of the state, particularly the Bay Area.
What happens to those delegates, awarded to candidates who are no longer in the running — which now includes all of those awarded to Sanders?
In short: it’s up to them.
Under party rules, delegates pledged to a dropout candidate become unpledged and are free to vote their consciences. In the lead-up to March 3, thousands of party members applied to be pledged delegates for the candidate of their choice. On May 17, caucuses in each district will pick from that not-very-shortlist.
At least that’s the plan. The original date in mid-April was pushed a month later for obvious reasons. Depending on the trajectory of the pandemic, May 17 may still be too soon for anyone to be cramming into high school gymnasiums or community centers.
Each candidate —even those no longer in the running — has the opportunity to vet and veto their list of potential delegates.
“There’s always somebody in the campaign working in California to make sure that the caucuses are held and that the people who filed by March 3 are notified,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California and one of the party’s wisemen when it comes to procedural minutia. “The campaigns have the legal right to say, ‘Wait a minute, there are 18 people who filed to be delegates in this district, and I don’t like two because they were campaigning for someone else.”
The next blue wave?
In 2018, a “blue wave” swept across California, flipping half of California’s Republican-held congressional districts and handing the Democratic Party three-fourths of the seats in both chambers of the Legislature.
That summer before the election, you could already see the wave building — if you knew where to look.
“Why this graphic should worry Republicans” is how we put it at the time. It was a chart that compared the combined share of the vote that went to the Republican candidate — or candidates — in every congressional district in 2014, the prior midterm primary, to the total share in 2018.
In a crowded primary race, that comparison makes for a useful kind of tea leaf-reading. If six Democrats are running against six Republicans, comparing one candidate against another isn’t a particularly good prediction of what will happen in the general election. But add up all the Democratic votes and compare it to all the Republican votes, and you get a better sense of where that district’s partisan allegiances lie.
What the chart showed: The various congressional seats that Democrats were targeting had seen dramatic declines in the GOP share of the vote since the prior midterm. A sea of arrows reflected that leftward shift. On the horizon: the blue wave.
Two years later, the central question going into this year’s congressional contest is whether the GOP’s electoral drubbing in California was a fluke — an anti-incumbent one-off that will likely reverse itself now that Democrats hold those seats — or whether the blue wave was more like a rising of the sea level.
This year’s primary results give Democrats reason to be hopeful.
Glance at the graphic above. There aren’t many rightward-shifting arrows. That shouldn’t be all that surprising; registered Republicans have been losing ground in the state for well over a decade.
And in all seven congressional seats that flipped (the purple arrows in the chart above), the GOP-share of the vote has declined since the last presidential primary in 2016 — and even since 2018.
(You can click the “Since 2016” and “Since 2018” buttons in the graphic above to compare how this year’s results compare. You can also toggle which races you want to see — districts held by Democrats, those held by Republicans or the seven that Democrats flipped in 2018 — by clicking on the color-coded ovals.)
That ought to come as a particularly big relief to the freshman Democrats who make up the Orange County delegation, where three out of four incumbents saw GOP-vote shares under 50% last month.
There’s a caveat for Gil Cisneros in the 39th district in Fullerton, who got only 47% of the vote, just behind Republican challenger Young Kim with 48%.
But even for Democrats Harley Rouda, TJ Cox and Josh Harder, all of whom are in seats where Republicans got a slight majority of the vote, history may be on their side. That’s because general election turnout is almost always more Democratic than the primary, which tends to skew older, wealthier and more conservative.
In 2018, the shift was particularly dramatic in the seven highlighted seats. Between the primary and the general election, the GOP share of the vote fell by an average of 6 percentage points. For all congressional races, the average primary-to-general shift was about 3 points. And in every election but one going back eight cycles — 2016 — the average share of the vote going to Republican candidates has declined from the primary to the general.
But here’s the big caveat: GOP turnout in this year’s primary may have been particularly depressed for reasons that have nothing to do with the party’s decline in popularity. President Trump had his party’s nomination in the bag. Democrats, conversely, were hosting the most competitive primary in at least a decade. There could still be plenty of Republicans who sat out the primary but will turn out in November.
Further down the ballot
Looking at the 14 state legislative swing seat races highlighted in our election guide, the primary results offer more of a mixed message.
Some of the seats that Democrats recently gained, either by flipping the seats in 2018 (Assembly Districts 74 and 76 in Orange County) or via defection (in San Diego’s Assembly District 77 Assemblyman Brian Maienschein switched parties in early 2019) appear relatively safe, with Republican challengers failing to get more than half the vote. Likewise, neither Senators John Moorlach nor Ling-Ling Chang, both Republican incumbents in Orange County, cobbled together 50% of their primary electorates. That ought to come as welcome news to their respective Democratic challengers.
But in some of the Assembly seats that Democratic operatives have had their eyes on, Republican candidates are holding strong. Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, a moderate Republican from the Central Coast garnered a larger share of the vote last month than he did in the 2018 primary and more than the entire GOP field combined in 2016.
GOP Assemblymen Tom Lackey of Antelope Valley, once viewed as the state’s most vulnerable Republican, and Steven Choi of Orange County both garnered half the primary vote — with a little extra to spare.
The question is whether those slim buffers will be enough to keep them in Sacramento after November.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.
The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.