Once upon a time, being good at “retail politics” maybe mattered. The media world was … different than it is today. Without getting into the weeds about it, all we need to do is point to Donald Trump. He can’t do retail politics to save his life, and wouldn’t do it to save his life. Yet his mastery of media manipulation propelled him to the White House.
Iowa and New Hampshire have justified their unjustified “first in the nation” status by claiming it gives underdog candidates a chance to compete against deep-pocket establishment types. If that ever mattered before, it sure doesn’t matter now. And certainly, we can point to the demographics of those states and make a compelling argument why their lily-white complexion makes them grossly out-of-step with the modern Democratic Party. But no need for that now.
It’s this simple—the candidates who will be competitive are those who can build mass movements behind them. I’m talking strong social media presence, email list in the millions, and the ability to rally tens of thousands of people instantaneously. There are just a handful of candidates, out of the 25 or so Democrats who we think are running, who fit the bill at the moment: Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, maybe Beto O’Rourke, and … I’m having a hard time coming up with more (though undoubtedly, additional candidates will get there during the next year). If you can’t build that movement in 2019, then you have no business running for president. And no, Iowa and New Hampshire won’t save you. Why?
Because of California.
The Iowa caucuses will be February 3.
New Hampshire on February 11.
Nevada caucus is next on February 22.
South Carolina primary: February 29.
Super Tuesday is March 3.
On Super Tuesday, Alabama, California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia will all vote.
While the exact delegates-by-state haven’t been released, these states will account for about one-third of all delegates allocated. California alone will have several hundred delegates (they had 475 in 2016), compared to about 40 for Iowa, and about two dozen for New Hampshire. And given that delegates are allocated proportionately, it makes zero sense to bet your marbles on Iowa and New Hampshire, for five to 10 delegates to a winning campaign, when just a few weeks later, the two largest states (and several more large ones) will be allocating delegates.
If that’s not reason enough to essentially ignore Iowa and New Hampshire …
California is essentially, nearly entirely, vote-by-mail at this point. And guess when ballots drop? The first week of February—the same time as the Iowa caucuses.
Political strategists in the state will tell you that you have to spend at least a month in the state beforehand, campaigning, to do well with the early ballots.
What’s more, California doesn’t early vote at the same rates. Northern California generally comes in earliest, with the late voters concentrated in southern California. So statewide campaigns will spend the early part of the voting period in NorCal, then shift southward for the last two weeks. That’s a lot of time in California, time that would’ve been spent shuttling back and forth between Iowa and New Hampshire in previous cycles.
And then there’s Texas (222 delegates in 2016), and North Carolina (107 delegates in 2016)! Anyone thinking they can propel an Iowa victory into something bigger against a media behemoth should just … ask Ted Cruz how that went. And 2016 didn’t even have the kind of front-loading of delegates that we’re seeing in 2020. So you either enter 2020 with cash and name ID to compete in what is essentially a nationwide primary day, or save everyone the trouble and pack it in early.
Now, some may say that California doesn’t matter because Kamala Harris will win it (she will), and that Massachusetts doesn’t matter because Elizabeth Warren will win it (she will), and Texas doesn’t matter because Beto O’Rourke will win it (he will, if he runs). But remember, states allocate delegates proportionately. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won California 53-46, yet came away with a narrow delegate lead of 254-221. Second place is almost as important as first. And in an extended contest, winning a bunch of early second-places puts you in a good position to win later, when the other two-thirds of delegates are decided.
A bunch of no-name candidates will continue to focus on Iowa and New Hampshire because 1.) it’s what’s always been done, 2.) they can’t afford to compete in Texas and California, and 3.) no one knows who they are, so shaking hands at a bunch of diners makes them feel like they’re in the game.
But they won’t be. Build a big list and build a national movement, compete in Texas and the rest of those March 3 states, or be relegated to also-ran status. That’ll be the story of the 2020 Democratic primaries.