Political News

How California may decide the Democratic nominee

Posted March 3, 2020 6:31 p.m. EST

— It's stunningly obvious to say that California is the big prize today, aka Super Tuesday.

California, after all, has 415 pledged delegates at stake on Tuesday -- putting it FAR in front of Texas, which has the second-most delegates to be won, with 228.

But it's less obvious to say that what happens in California today -- and as the votes get counted over the next week or so (California takes forever to count) -- will play a decisive (or close to it) role in deciding the identity of the eventual Democratic presidential nominee.

Here's why: Most polling suggests that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont will win the California primary. But the key will not be whether Sanders wins. Rather, it will be how many other candidates (if any) get to 15% of the statewide vote.

The reason is, well, sort of complicated. Under Democrats' delegate allocation formula, any candidate who gets 15% of the vote either statewide or in any congressional district within the state is assured of getting at least some delegates. And that proportional delegate allocation makes it hard for any candidate to pull away.

Which means that there is a very big difference between, say, former Vice President Joe Biden coming in second to Sanders with 14.9% of the statewide vote in California and Biden coming in second with 15%.

And there is an even bigger difference between Sanders being the only candidate to get more than 15% of the statewide vote and Sanders plus two other candidates (Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, most likely) making that key mark.

How big? If only Sanders gets to 15% statewide, he will get almost 60% (249) of all of the delegates, according to calculations made by the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman. If two non-Sanders candidates got 15% of the vote each, Sanders would win just 38% (158) of California's delegates.

That nearly-100 delegate difference out of California could well be the difference between a solid night for Sanders and a very good night for him.

If Sanders can walk away from California at the high end of Wasserman's projections, it's likely -- given his strength in New England, Texas, Minnesota and Colorado -- that he will have a several hundred-delegate edge over Biden (and everyone else) in the wake of Super Tuesday.

If Sanders comes closer to the floor of Wasserman's projections, he's likely to emerge with a lead -- but a significantly smaller one -- from Tuesday.

In the former scenario, Sanders is likely uncatchable in the delegate fight (whether or not he gets to the magic number of 1,991). In the latter, Biden has a path to win the delegate battle.

The Point: Yes, it's only early March. And double yes, California is just one state. But it's a big one. And a potentially decisive one too.

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