SAN FRANCISCO – California is no longer a political afterthought.

The solidly blue state hasn’t voted for a Republican president in a general election since George H.W. Bush won here more than 30 years ago. And for the past several election cycles, the nominating contests in The Golden State have been dull races.

With state Democrats deciding to move up their primary from early June to March 3 – the “Super Tuesday” Election Day when voters in 12 other states and Democrats living abroad also cast their ballots – California is enjoying its moment as an electoral belle of the ball.

“By moving to March, we’ve made California not just more relevant but extremely relevant,” California’s secretary of state Alex Padilla told USA TODAY as the California Democratic Party Convention kicked off Friday. “That’s translated into candidates not just coming here to raise money. They are actually coming to talk to California voters.”

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Indeed, more than half of the nearly two dozen 2020 Democratic presidential contenders have descended on California this weekend to court liberal activists and party establishment at the convention and other forums being sponsored by left-leaning groups and unions.

That flood of attention by White House hopefuls is good news for California Democrats, who in recent election cycles watched Democratic presidential candidates swoop into the state for big-dollar fundraisers in Silicon Valley and Hollywood while putting minimum effort into voter outreach. 

But California’s new standing could shake up how campaigns strategize where they spend their time and dollars, according to political analysts. For the first time, Californians and voters in Texas, the nation’s second most populous state, will hold their primaries on the same day.

“California moving to the front of the pack rather than where it used to be will have a big effect on how candidates campaign,” said James Demers, a Democratic strategist in New Hampshire. “You have to compete first in the early states, but you also have to have this time around some significant resources in California and in Texas. You can’t set up shop in a place like that coming out of New Hampshire and Iowa. You now have to have a campaign in place very early.”

California Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks said California’s move means candidates can survive getting through the first four races without necessarily notching a victory. Wicks was a key adviser to President Barack Obama’s two White House runs and is now advising Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat.

“I think you still have to do well in the first four, but I don’t think it’s going to be disqualifying if you don’t win,” Wicks said.

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With mail-in voting provisions, California voters can begin casting their ballots on Feb. 3, the same day as Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Sixty-five percent of Californians cast early ballots in the 2018 midterms.

Why the early states matter

The earliest voting states, particularly Iowa and New Hampshire, have served as equalizers in the past. Shoe-leather politics and relatively inexpensive television and radio advertising made them territory where an underdog candidate could stand on nearly even ground with deep-pocketed rivals.

But voters in some more populous states have long complained about Iowa and New Hampshire’s elevated status, noting the states are hardly reflective of the nation’s diversity. The states’ populations have been historically less ethnically diverse, have lower unemployment, and have more married-couple households than the rest of the country. 

Similar arguments could be made that California is further to the left of the rest of the country on immigration, climate, and cultural issues than any other state.

But some voters pushed back against the notion, suggesting that the state is in fact a leader.

“The rest of the country really looks to California for what a progressive state can be,” said Maricela Gutierrez, director of a San Jose agency that works with immigrants, following a forum in Pasadena where four Democratic candidates outlined their ambitions for immigration reform.

Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa, said California’s move could create a dynamic where earlier voting states Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina will “tee up the nomination” and give California – which sent 475 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in 2016 – a chance “to hit it out of the park.”

“What states have done for years in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the caucuses is to move their primaries forward,” Goldford said. “The irony of that is it doesn’t mitigate the impact of the caucuses, it amplifies the caucuses. When states follow really quickly on Iowa, what it does is shield ‘winners’ … from in-depth and extensive examination and it hurts losers because they have less time to recover from a poor showing.”

Dan Schnur, who served as communications director for former California Gov. Pete Wilson and John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, said he doubts that California will prove to become a hot race. The state with nearly 40 million residents and three of the nation’s biggest media markets will make it prohibitively expensive for all but a few candidates.

And the state is also not a winner-take-all primary, meaning that delegates are apportioned based on the percentage of the vote they received.

“This move did not make California a 900-pound gorilla in the nominating process,” Schnur said.

Candidates make their pitches

This weekend’s cattle call is centered around the state convention, where 3,400 state delegates will elect the state party’s next leader. Former chairman Eric Bauman resigned in November, weeks after facing allegations he drank on the job and sexually harassed and abused staff. The state party is facing three lawsuits connected to Bauman’s alleged conduct.

But the controversy has been overshadowed by the wall of candidates trying to woo Californians.

Fourteen candidates are scheduled to address the convention Saturday and Sunday, an opportunity to make their case about why they are the best candidate to beat President Trump while touting a progressive streak to delegates from a state that prides itself as the nation’s most liberal state.

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Four candidates, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Housing and Urban Development Director Julian Castro and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, stopped in Pasadena Friday to layout their vision to immigrations activists.

Harris was the featured guest at a Planned Parenthood event Friday night. She also flexed home state muscle on the eve of the convention, announcing that she’s sealed the endorsement of 33 Democratic members of the state assembly, including Speaker Anthony Rendon.

Six candidates – Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Harris and Sanders – are scheduled to make five-minute pitches to Service Employees International Union at a breakfast meeting Saturday about how they’d advocate for working people.

Eight candidates – Booker, Castro, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders, Warren and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand – have been invited to address the liberal group MoveOn’s forum Saturday afternoon

Sanders, who announced on Friday eight campaign hires who will be the nucleus of his California operation, is scheduled to hold a rally Saturday night in San Jose. Buttigieg plans to head to Fresno Monday to stump and take part in an MSNBC hosted town hall.

Meanwhile, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper plans to attend church on Sunday in Oakland at a predominantly African-American church before ending his California visit.

Padilla, California’ secretary of state, said there are signs that the move to push ahead the state primary is generating excitement among California. More than 20 million people in the state are now registered to vote, with the vast majority Democrats or not party affiliated, he said.

“We are seeing a new energy,” Padilla said.

More than 6,500 people crowded a patchy soccer field on the campus of Laney College on Friday night to see Warren speak at what had originally been billed as a town hall.

The crowd, some who came with elaborate picnics and bottles of chardonnay, was so unexpectedly big that Warren nixed the question-and-answer format. Instead she gave a stemwinder of a speech in which she slammed the influence of corporations in Washington, slammed Trump’s proposed border wall as hateful, and pitched her plan to pay for free college tuition, universal child care and other programs through a new tax on mega-millionaires.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Hickenlooper and former Rep. John Delaney, all polling in the bottom half of Democratic hopefuls, also will address the convention this weekend.

Where’s Biden?

Notably absent is former Vice President Joe Biden, who early polls show is in the lead nationally and in California.

But even Biden, who is in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, delivering a speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, has thrown early attention to California.

Last month, he travelled to Los Angeles for a fundraiser and courted Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has not endorsed a candidate, over a taco lunch.

Jamal Brown, a national press secretary for Biden, said senior campaign aides were dispatched to the California convention to discuss the former vice president’s bid with delegates and other participants.

“In the coming weeks, Vice President Biden is looking forward to returning to California to meet with voters, learn firsthand about their concerns, and ultimately, compete strongly in the state,” Brown said.

Alexandra Gallardo-Rooker, the acting California Democratic Party chairwoman, said that Biden called her Wednesday to express his regrets for not making the convention.

She said that she told Biden that she hoped to “see him in November” when the state party is scheduled to hold a candidates forum.

“He said, ‘Oh no, we’ll see you a lot before November,’ ” she said.

Contributing: Chris Woodyard in Pasadena, California.

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