Between them, California and Texas have 643 delegates to assign. That’s more than 15% of the total. In a world where the same candidate won all of the delegates from both states, it would give them about a third of what they need to get nominated. Super Tuesday has a lot to pay attention to, but from a pure math standpoint, these two matter more than the rest. These two mega states will likely determine whether Bernie Sanders has a good chance at winning a delegate majority before the convention. They’ll also decide if there’s a way Joe Biden can catch up to Sanders before Milwaukee. For good measure, they’ll weigh in on whether Mike Bloomberg is a factor, and whether Elizabeth Warren can continue trying to earn delegates, or needs to slink away sooner than later.
In California, it’s a margin thing, not who will win. Bernie has this. He’s favored in Texas, and early voting might make it impossible for Biden to catch him, but there’s at least a little drama about the winner. Again though, it’s by how much, more than who wins. Let’s take a closer look:
2016 Results: Hillary Clinton won by a few points. It was close, but in a state this big, we’re talking about a few hundred thousand votes. The margin was similar to Nevada. As we saw this year, Bernie has made progress out West, particularly with Latino voters. His California poll average (33%) is close to his first alignment caucus results in Nevada (35%.) His formula is simple. Increase the age range of Latino voters from his 2016 results, while monopolizing the youngest and most progressive voters of any ethnicity. Appeal to a wider range of African American voters than he does in the South. None of the first four states have large Asian-Pacific Islander populations like California does. Bernie is polling competitively, though not overwhelmingly with them so far. His results will influence his prospects in Washington on March 10.
For Biden, his key opportunity is to consolidate as much as he possibly can from the Clinton 2016 supporters. He has some cross-over with Warren here. Along with more moderate voters who thought Sanders was too far left then, and still do. If he were to take some late-deciding Warren supporters who are not part of the base that won’t abandon her, along with taking back Bloomberg supporters who were originally Biden’s, plus getting those who preferred Buttigieg before he dropped out, or Klobuchar but know she can’t win here, it adds up to a lot.
Early Voting: Californians are notorious early voters. All residents can request mail ballots. They began casting them on February 3, the same date as the Iowa caucus. Bernie started surging in polls here a few weeks ago, so he likely didn’t miss out on any potential early votes. Biden’s position today is the best it’s been since the beginning of the process, so he stands to lose the most from early decision making. However, maybe not as much as we’d think. An elections expert who has tracked vote-by-mail returns is claiming a smaller than normal percentage of frequent primary voters have sent theirs in. It’s particularly concentrated among those who have participated in the last five presidential primaries.
Rather than the normal 60-65%, only 47% are in so far. Anecdotally, the frequent Democratic voters I know in California have delayed to the last minute too. This is great news for Biden. I’d be extremely surprised if it’s enough for him to catch Sanders. But it will be enough to ensure he reaches the 15% delegate threshold statewide, and in most/all of the 53 congressional districts.
Warren is right on the precipice. Overall, this probably isn’t great news for her, and could be enough to deny her the necessary 15% in most places. It’s distinctly bad news for Bloomberg and Buttigieg. Especially Mayor Pete. His results with voters of color in Nevada and South Carolina were disappointing. And that was after significant outreach efforts and a good amount of advertising. He hasn’t had time/money to do either in California. That leaves him with the type of white voters who were most likely to stall. Amy Klobuchar can similarly expect a problem. She’s not finished ahead of Pete yet, and won’t here.
NOTE: Above paragraph was written before Pete dropped out. And it’s part of why he dropped out. It’s also why early voting a month ahead of the primary is a bad idea. I’d imagine his early voters would like to have the chance to pick Biden, Bloomberg, or Warren right now.
Delegates: With Pete out, the odds of Bloomberg and/or Warren qualifying decently often have increased. Biden will do even better. The best outcome for Joe is having Bloomberg fall short in most districts, but Warren just clear the barrier. No matter how you slice it, this doesn’t help Sanders. Ex-Buttigieg supporters are less likely to pick him than his competitors. Between this and Biden’s recovery, his dream scenario of having everyone else fall below 15% in most places is off the table.
Current Polls: Buttigieg was dipping below 10% in most California polls, hence his withdrawal. Klobuchar really isn’t registering. She’s not a factor. Neither was Steyer, so his withdrawal won’t move enough votes to concern ourselves with. Biden, Bloomberg, and Warren were all close to the line. I’m comfortable assuming Biden will exceed the pre-South Carolina polling, which had him a little ahead of the other two anyway. Very curious to see if we get any data between now and Tuesday that would give a clearer idea of where Bloomberg and Warren will land.
2016 Results: Hillary clobbered Bernie here in 2016, winning by a 2:1 margin in both popular votes and delegate allocation. His current polls have him with about the same support he had in a one-on-one race last time. That’s not absurd. While he lost badly to Biden in South Carolina yesterday, Bernie did get about 80% of the support he had in a two-person contest. If you add him and Warren together (which you probably shouldn’t), it adds to more than he got in 2016.
Texans weren’t ready for him yet four years ago. Clinton had already won Texas in 2008. It wasn’t a great combination. Tejanos particularly, and Texas Latinos in general, are more conservative than Latinos in places like California and Nevada. The Latin community skews a little older in Texas too.
Early Voting: A lot of Texans participate. Unlike California, they only got started on February 18, which means almost entirely after Bloomberg bombed his first debate. I’m tempted to suggest he was more impacted by that in Texas than many other places. He’d reached 20% in selected polls, and unlike Florida, where he can rebound for March 17 if Biden doesn’t knock him out on Tuesday, the one-two punch of struggling and then having Biden jump forward, is almost guaranteed to keep him in third at best.
I think it was probably a neutral factor for Warren. Her ability to reach 15% has gone up with Mayor Pete’s abdication, but he booked a few votes in early voting. Clearly Biden would have been better served if nobody voted before Tuesday. We’ll see if Bernie’s head start makes it impossible for Joe to close the gap.
Delegates: Very similar story to California. We know Sanders will get a lot of delegates, even if he doesn’t win. We can now assume the same for Biden. Buttigieg’s absence drops the odds of Sanders having a big delegate gap in Texas. You can see either or both of Bloomberg/Warren rallying a little and staying above the line in many places, or center-leaning voters abandoning Bloomberg for Biden, while progressives pull the plug on Warren for Bernie.
If both California and Texas delegates are almost entirely Bernie or Biden, it greatly improves the odds that one could get to a majority, or close enough to end debate, in time for the convention.
Current Polls: If you believe NBC/Marist, this is over. They showed Sanders up 15 points on Biden, which, accounting for early voting, would make his lead insurmountable. A YouGov poll from a similar time period had Biden within four points. If that’s true, Biden is likely to catch or surpass Bernie. NBC/Marist doesn’t tend to favor Sanders, and YouGov doesn’t favor Biden, so there’s no reason to believe one while rejecting the other.
If you prefer averaging and figuring the truth is somewhere in the middle, Bernie has a clear advantage, but one that Biden could make up if the cards fall correctly for him. Texas is distinctly more in doubt than California. Biden has polled well in general election surveys here, finishing within the margin of error against Donald Trump on a regular basis. He also led here when he was leading nationally. That wasn’t always true in California.
A week ago, it looked like Sanders could use California and Texas to create a delegate gap Biden wouldn’t surmount, regardless of how well he did later. Once Barack Obama got an early lead on Hillary, she couldn’t catch up, regardless of how many important states she won later. Thanks to the voters of South Carolina, Jim Clyburn, and Pete Buttigieg, the odds have shifted tremendously. Now it’s possible Biden could win more Super Tuesday delegates than Sanders. If this happens, a late recovery in Texas, and to a lesser extent California, will make it possible. At the same time, early voting has made it very difficult for Biden to create a lot of space ahead of Sanders.