The California Primaries: Mark Your Calendars for March 3, 2020

9 mins read
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The California primaries are on the horizon and arriving early this year! Here’s what you need to know:

Super Tuesday 

California usually holds its presidential primary in June, but this year the nation’s most populous state is finally relevant! California has joined the slate of Super Tuesday states (AL, AR, CO, ME, MA, MN, NC, OK, TN, TX, UT, VT and VA) casting their ballots on March 3. Candidates can win more pledged delegates on Super Tuesday than on any other day of the election—1,357 to be exact (out of a total of 3,979 pledged delegates). A decisive victory for any one candidate could result in knockout blows for one or more opponents, even all of them.

Why California Matters

For the past several election cycles, California voters have largely been shut out of the presidential nominating process. In the primaries, Californians voted in June, next to last, when the winning candidate was all but officially nominated. Once the general election battle began, California was mostly ignored as well. Because the state votes so reliably blue, candidates only come to the state to fundraise, not to campaign. All this contributed to an uncomfortable fact: despite being the nation’s most populous state as well as one of its most diverse, California had little influence on presidential nominees. To give California voters the chance to weigh in on the candidates and to make candidates pay attention to issues that particularly concern Californians—like immigration, income inequality, and climate change—in 2019 state officials moved up the primary to Super Tuesday in March. 

How Delegates Are Awarded

Although California follows a winner-take-all approach for its 55 electoral votes, the same practice does not apply to the primaries. California has 416 pledged delegates—delegates who have pledged to vote for a particular candidate based on the results of primary voting in their state—in addition to 79 unpledged delegates, known as superdelegates, who can vote however they like. 

District-level delegates: Each of California’s congressional districts are allocated a certain number of delegates, based on population and presidential voting history. Candidates who receive more than 15 percent of the primary vote in a district will win delegates. There are 272 in total.

Statewide delegates: Candidates who receive more than 15 percent of the statewide vote will be awarded delegates equal in proportion to their vote (that is, if a candidates get 50 percent of the statewide vote, they get 50 percent of the statewide delegates). There are 144 in total.

This rather complicated system greatly lessens the likelihood that any one candidate will sweep the Golden State. For example, in 2008 Hilary Clinton beat Barack Obama by 8 percentage points but only netted 38 additional delegates in total. 

This system also encourages candidates to compete in every corner of the state. Even if a candidate does not win a single congressional district, they can still be awarded delegates as long as they receive at least 15 percent of the vote statewide. Conversely, if a candidate does not win 15 percent of the statewide vote, they can still receive delegates based on the vote in the congressional districts.

What does all this mean for the voters of California? EVERY VOTE MATTERS!

Down-Ballot Candidates

In the bustle around the presidential candidates, it’s easy to forget that Californians are also voting for primary candidates to run for all other open offices, including their representatives in the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate.

Unlike most states, California uses a nonpartisan blanket primary, or a “jungle primary,” which means that all candidates are listed on one ballot regardless of party affiliation. Then the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, no matter their political party

While the jungle primary was adopted in hopes of ending partisan gridlock (candidates would have to moderate themselves to appeal to all voters, not just those of their own party), it led to unexpected anxiety for Democrats in the 2018 elections. So many Democrats jumped into congressional district races that the distinct possibility emerged that they would split the vote and Democrats would be shut out of the general election entirely (as happened in CA 8, which saw two Republicans compete head to head).

Because of this unique dynamic, voters in certain congressional districts should pay closer attention to their candidates than usual. Here are some particularly compelling this primary season:

  • CA 8—Three Democrats, five Republicans and two others are competing for this open seat. While this district leans strongly Republican, the lack of an incumbent, possible vote splitting due to the jungle primary, and the district’s large percentage of independents could put a Democrat in the general election, unlike in 2018.
  • CA 10—Democrat Josh Harder, who rode to office in the blue wave of 2018, is defending his seat against two Democrats and three Republicans.
  • CA 16—Democrat Jim Costa holds the seat but faces two candidates from his own party and a Republican. Vote splitting among Democrats could thrust a Republican candidate into the general election even though Democrats outnumber them by 20 points. 
  • CA 21—Democrat TJ Cox won by less than a percentage point and now is facing another Democratic candidate as well his rival in 2018 and a second Republican. 
  • CA 25—Freshman Democrat Katie Hill resigned this seat and now six Democrats, six Republicans and an independent are running. At the same time, voters are casting ballots in a special election to finish her term. And not every candidate is running in each race.
  • CA 50—Republican Duncan Hunter resigned this seat and now it’s a competition between a handful of Republicans and only one Democrat, Ammar Campa-Najjar. The catch: the name of another Democrat who left the race remains on the ballot. The upshot: VOTE Ammar Campa-Najjar. DON’T vote Marisa Calderon.
  • CA 53—Eleven Democrats, four Republicans and an independent are vying for this open seat. Because of the jungle primary and vote splitting, a very blue district could end up sending a Democrat and a Republican to the general election.


New this year, California voters can register at any polling place on election day, or re-register with a different party or as an independent. If you are a “no party preference” voter who wants to vote in the Democratic primary but you haven’t informed the registrar (the deadline was February 18), you can still get a Democratic ballot at the polls. Your vote will be counted as provisional until your eligibility is confirmed.


Ballots will be counted as long as they are postmarked by March 3 and arrive within three days. But don’t expect to know all the winners on election night. California is notorious for how long it takes to count all the votes. Officials have a full month to verify the count and, in the case of the presidential primaries, award delegates.

For more information about primary voting, consult “Your guide to the 2020 California Primary”:

To check your registration, go to the website of California’s Secretary of State:

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Rena Korb is a professional writer and editor. Her publications span from children’s books to political commentary. She volunteers as a DemCast California captain and as a leader with her local Indivisible chapter. She also is a lifelong activist, attending her first protest when she was 16. She lives in San Mateo with her family and, in non-pandemic times, enjoys playing Ultimate frisbee.

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