Elizabeth Warren, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, gets on her knees to pick spinach while discussing single-payer health care with farmworkers in the Salinas Valley. Beto O’Rourke, in a wetsuit with his campaign logo, tries to stand on a surfboard in the waves off La Jolla, but falls face first into the water. Joe Biden dons a uniform and paper hat to try to take orders—“I love mine ‘animal style’ too, ma’am”—in the drive-through of an In-N-Out in Long Beach.
Then Bernie Sanders, in a desperate attempt to catch front-runner Biden, packs a bong with legally grown California cannabis—and tries to smoke it while riding in a hot-air balloon over Sonoma, creating a meme that breaks the internet.
For now, these scenes are merely the product of one California columnist’s imagination. But in the next 10 months, don’t be surprised if they become scenes in the reality TV show we call the presidential race.
For decades, California has had little say in picking presidents—a peculiar lack of choice for the state that possesses decision-making power over which technologies other Americans will use, what entertainment they will watch, and which fruits, nuts, and dairy products they will consume. American presidential campaigns have long puzzled us: Why does the biggest, richest, and best-looking state have so little say in the political scramble that occurs every four years?
The answer to that question has been tradition and continuity. Other Americans—out of a commitment to electing presidents who were steady to the point of being boring—preferred to allow some of the country’s dullest states—Iowa and New Hampshire—to shape the process.
But Americans no longer are attached to sober-minded presidents. That major cultural shift—in combination with the huge number of candidates for 2020, a much earlier California primary (March 3), and a deeply unpopular Republican president—means that the Golden State’s choice for president is likely to be determinative next year.
Suddenly, Californians face a new question: Now that we get to pick the president, what kind of president do we want?
I had occasion to think through the possibilities while moderating a recent Zócalo Public Square event about next year’s California primary. Opinions differed over how California may evaluate potential presidents, but there was consensus among the panel of scholars and political pros that the state’s power in the 2020 race is both profound and multifaceted: California will not only shape the next president, but the campaign will also shape us.
Geographically, the primary contest involves the entire state. This is the result of a decision the Democrats made to allocate delegates to anyone who wins at least 15 percent of the vote in any California congressional district. While more delegates are allocated to districts with more Democrats—which will push candidates to spend more time in Democratic-heavy coastal districts—lesser-known contenders are likely to make hay by going into the state’s interior to pick up delegates, in districts where there may be less competition.
The race will not be easy for anyone, even our home-state candidate, California’s own U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris. She may struggle to meet sky-high expectations that she should win her own state, particularly with the better-known Biden and Sanders leading her in statewide polls.
And while California has been represented in the Senate exclusively by women since 1992, it remains to be seen whether it is favorable turf for women seeking the presidency. Yes, Hillary Clinton won the 2008 and 2016 presidential primaries here, but, as a state, we’ve been less inclined to elect women to executive positions. California has never had a female governor, and its largest city, Los Angeles, has never had a female mayor.
The state may provide a more open field for nonwhite candidates, given that so many of our voters aren’t white. This could be a boon for lesser-known male candidates like Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and federal housing secretary, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
California is also not fertile ground for a Republican challenger to the president. Republicans here like Trump nearly as much as Republicans nationally.
But it’s not just about the candidates, California is likely to shape the issues of the presidential campaign. Previous presidential races have focused on the economy, health care, and national security, but housing and homelessness, as the top priorities of many Californians, will become national issues next year. Other lower-profile issues that divide Californians—like water and high-speed rail—also should become big points of contention as presidential candidates spend more time here. And California teachers unions have been asking candidates to back federal regulations to curtail the growth of charter schools as a condition of their support.
Climate change debates—over the state’s policies to curtail it through cap and trade, and growing anxiety over disasters like the fire that destroyed Paradise—also could move from California to the national arena. And our state’s commitment to protecting immigrants and their families, regardless of legal status, should shape the race. In California, perhaps more than anywhere else, Biden is likely to face potent attacks from rivals who point to his service in an Obama administration that engaged in massive deportation of immigrants.
But our votes are not the only way that Californians will impact the selection of the president. Despite new methods of online fundraising from small donors, the state’s richest people will have even more power and influence than usual, as candidates grow desperate for funding in such a large field. The struggle for attention also could make the backing of Hollywood figures even more important. Look for next year’s Oscars, which will take place just three weeks before the California primary, to be the most political in history, with perhaps some candidates walking the red carpet to boost their name recognition.
But it is through technology that Californians are likely to have the most impact on the identity of the next president. This cuts many ways. The decisions made by Menlo Park-based Facebook in handling political content will affect Americans’ very perceptions of the contest. And of course, the other California titans of the internet, including Google and Twitter, could potentially be harnessed by those who mean American democracy harm. At the same time, Facebook and other tech giants are becoming a major issue in the race. Should they be broken up? How do we defend our privacy from them?
There are reasons to worry about a president picked by California. This is a wonderful place of beaches and innovation, but it is also the volatile, crazy state that gave us Proposition 13 and the Kardashians. If we Californians give America a president who reflects our state’s true preferences and character, the whole world may feel as though it has smoked something.