Cal­i­for­nia’s early pri­mary makes it a cru­cial can­di­date stop.

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Go west, 2020 pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates?

Early vot­ing in Cal­i­for­nia’s pri­mary will over­lap with the tra­di­tional early nominating con­tests in Iowa, New Hamp­shire, Ne­vada and South Carolina. That could force the sprawl­ing field of Democrats to nav­i­gate those states as well as Cal­i­for­nia’s no­to­ri­ously com­plex land­scape, where cam­paign­ing is done through paid po­lit­i­cal ads.

Strate­gists es­ti­mate it could cost at least $5 mil­lion for a can­di­date to com­pete in Cal­i­for­nia, an amount that could be pro­hib­i­tive for all but the best-funded con­tenders. Nas­cent cam­paigns are ask­ing them­selves if they should gam­ble on Cal­i­for­nia.

“Ev­ery­one’s go­ing to play in Iowa, ev­ery­one’s go­ing to go to New Hamp­shire,” said Ben Tulchin, a San Fran­cisco-based poll­ster who worked for Bernie San­ders’ 2016 pres­i­den­tial bid. “But there are only 3- 4 of the top-tier can­di­dates who will com­pete in Cal­i­for­nia.”

The na­tion’s big­gest and sec­ond-most-di­verse state has long com­plained about be­ing ef­fec­tively shut out of the pres­i­den­tial nominating process be­cause its pri­mary usu­ally comes months after the ini­tial four con­tests in Iowa, New Hamp­shire, Ne­vada and South Carolina. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill mov­ing the state’s pri­mary up to the ear­li­est date per­mis­si­ble.

Cal­i­for­nia is slated to vote on March 3, the first day al­lowed for a state that’s

not in the tra­di­tional early state lineup. And be­cause of Cal­i­for­nia’s early-vot­ing sys­tem, vot­ers will get pri­mary bal­lots start­ing 30 days be­fore the pri­mary, which co­in­cides with the Iowa cau­cuses.

Alex Padilla, Cal­i­for­nia’s sec­re­tary of state and a Demo­crat, said there are al­ready “a heck of a lot more calls for peo­ple who know Cal­i­for­nia to join cer­tain teams.”

Es­pe­cially for Democrats, Cal­i­for­nia is a fix­ture on pres­i­den­tial as­pi­rants’ itin­er­ar­ies be­cause of the trove of high- end donors there. But Padilla and other Cal­i­for­nia politi­cos hope can­di­dates now feel they must reach out to the state’s vot­ers, too.

“The vot­ers of Cal­i­for­nia de­serve a larger role in se­lect­ing the nom­i­nees of both par­ties,” Padilla said.

Cal­i­for­nia won’t be the only state vot­ing on March 3. It will join at least eight oth­ers — in­clud­ing an­other be­he­moth, Texas — on what’s known as Su­per Tues­day. It’s pos­si­ble that more states will move their pri­mary dates up to in­crease their clout, es­pe­cially since Cal­i­for­nia has jumped to the front of the pack.

The enor­mous amount of votes up for grabs that day, cou­pled with the as­tro­nom­i­cal price tag of com­pet­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, may end up in­creas­ing the im­por­tance of the early states — es­pe­cially over­whelm­ingly white and ru­ral Iowa and New Hamp­shire, which are least like Cal­i­for­nia.

That’s be­cause win­ners in those states are likely to re­ceive heavy attention and, with that, do­na­tions that could fund a Cal­i­for­nia oper­a­tion. Once Su­per Tues­day is over, a huge per­cent­age of Democrats will have voted, mak­ing it hard for can­di­dates who aren’t in first to catch up.

“You win early or you go home,” said Josh Put­nam, a professor at the Univer­sity of North Carolina-Wilm­ing­ton who tracks pres­i­den­tial pri­maries. The mas­sive num­ber of del­e­gates up for grabs on Su­per Tues­day “doesn’t mean it’ll set­tle things, but it’ll get us a mea­sure of the way there,” he said.

Bob Shrum, a vet­eran of sev­eral Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns who is now di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for the Po­lit­i­cal Fu­ture and the Un­ruh In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, said Iowa and New Hamp­shire will still be crit­i­cal. “They win­now the field,” he said.

Para­dox­i­cally, Shrum added, Cal­i­for­nia could also be a bul­wark for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who’s made it a peren­nial po­lit­i­cal tar­get and sym­bol of what’s wrong with lib­eral Amer­ica. The pres­i­dent re­mains pop­u­lar enough among the GOP that it’s un­likely he’ll have a se­ri­ous pri­mary chal­lenge. But if he did and lost an early state, the state’s be­lea­guered Republi- can vot­ers would help him.

“As it has shrunk,” Shrum said of the Cal­i­for­nia GOP, which is now out­num­bered by both Demo­cratic and in­de­pen­dent vot­ers in the state, “it has got­ten more and more Trump-es­que.”

Sev­eral po­ten­tial Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates hail from Cal­i­for­nia — most promi­nently Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, Los An­ge­les Mayor Eric Garcetti and bil­lion­aire Tom Steyer — and that state’s ear­lier pri­mary date could help them.

But there’s no guar­an­tee that loy­alty to a lo­cal will over­come a can­di­date who catches fire with the party’s base after Iowa and New Hamp­shire.

Just ask Florida Sen. Marco Ru­bio, who was trounced by Trump in his state’s Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pri­mary in 2016.

“If Beto O’Rourke held a rally at Los An­ge­les or San Fran­cisco City Hall, he’d get a larger crowd” than Garcetti or Har­ris, said Mike Tru­jillo, a vet­eran Demo­cratic op­er­a­tive South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Tru­jillo added there’s no guar­an­tee that O’Rourke, the Texas con­gress­man who nar­rowly lost his chal­lenge to Sen. Ted Cruz, can main­tain that level of grass­roots en­thu­si­asm in 2020. But he said can­di­dates who have that sup­port will gain the edge in Cal­i­for­nia, re­gard­less of whether it’s their home state.

Tru­jillo ran Hil­lary Clin­ton’s Cal­i­for­nia field oper­a­tion in 2008, the last time the state’s pri­mary leapfrogged to Su­per Tues­day. It was no panacea for Cal­i­for­nia’s sta­tus in pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics — Tru­jillo re­calls re­peat­edly be­ing pulled from Cal­i­for­nia and sent to early-state Ne­vada to help out. “I don’t see that dy­namic chang­ing for any pres­i­den­tial cam­paign,” he said.

Still, Tru­jillo said can­di­dates will still have to learn Cal­i­for­nia’s ins and outs quickly be­cause, as in 2008, it will be­come a crit­i­cal part of the long march to the nom­i­na­tion. Tru­jillo says the state’s nu­mer­ous Lati­nos are par­tic­u­larly up for grabs in the pri­mary.

The Cal­i­for­nia pres­i­den­tial pri­mary is like 53 in­di­vid­ual elec­tions be­cause it al­lo­cates del­e­gates based not on statewide vote to­tals but the re­sults in each of its con­gres­sional dis­tricts. Those stretch the equiv­a­lent of the dis­tance from Maine to North Carolina, through teem­ing cities, empty ru­ral ar­eas and af­flu­ent sub­urbs.

But in the end, Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers are not that dif­fer­ent from other ones, said An­drea Steele, a vet­eran Cal­i­for­nia-based Demo­cratic op­er­a­tive who runs Emerge, a group that helps fe­male can­di­dates run for of­fice. She ex­pects tra­di­tional is­sues like the econ­omy and health care to dom­i­nate, along with grow­ing Demo­cratic con­cerns like cli­mate change.

“I don’t think Cal­i­for­ni­ans are so dif­fer­ent from peo­ple in Iowa and New Hamp­shire,” Steele said.

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