Kamala Harris could be the big winner as California moves up its 2020 primary

Tired of taking a back seat to smaller states that play an outsized role in picking presidential candidates, California moved up its primary elections for 2020 to Super Tuesday, March 3. That switch would seem to benefit Sen. Kamala Harris’s candidacy, political observers say, though it also carries potential danger.

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and former head of the Democratic National Committee, who ran in the Democratic primary in 2004, believes the switch gives Harris an added edge.

“The advantage will go to Kamala Harris and anybody else from California,” Dean told Yahoo News.

At the same time, entering Super Tuesday as the favorite to win an early California primary isn’t all good news for Harris, who national polls show is running third in a hypothetical field of Democrats behind Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“It puts her at some risk,” Dean says of Harris. “If she goes in to California, she has to win. If for some reason she doesn’t, that’s going to be very problematic for her.”

Harris has won three statewide elections, and with potential rivals like billionaire businessman Tom Steyer and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti bowing out, she might end up as the only major candidate from California in the race. In the past two days, three of the state’s Democratic House members — Ted Lieu, Katie Hill and Nanette Barragan — have all endorsed Harris, solidifying her standing as the candidate to beat in California.

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Kamala Harris early in her career
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Kamala Harris early in her career
San Francisco district attorney candidate Kamala Harris, left, serves lunch to an unidentied visitor while volunteering at Thanksgiving service at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco on Thursday, Nov. 27, 2003. Glide church has been feeding the needy for years, this Thanksgiving about 1,200 volunteers helped prepare 6,000 meals from 1,000 turkeys and 600 hams. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
San Francisco's new district attorney, Kamala Harris, right, receives the oath of office from California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, left, during inauguration ceremonies Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004, in San Francisco. In the center is Harris' mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, who holds a copy of "The Bill of Rights." Harris, a political novice and career prosecutor, became San Francisco's chief law enforcer Thursday and California's first district attorney of Indian and black descent. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris poses for a portrait in San Francisco, Friday, June 18, 2004. The December election of a new district attorney was supposed to signal a turning point for police-prosecutor relations in San Francisco, where lofty, ultra-liberal ideals sometimes clash with the street-level realities of law enforcement. But after ousting her former boss on a pledge to restore order to the DA's office, Kamala Harris has faced unforeseen trials with her colleagues in blue. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom holds a Thanksgiving meal while volunteering at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco Thursday, Nov. 25, 2004. Glide prepared more than 5,000 meals for Thanksgiving. Also pictured are San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, center, and Newsom's wife Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, second from right. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who as a prosecutor once specialized in child sexual assault cases addresses the Domestic Human Trafficking symposium in Los Angeles, Friday, April, 25, 2014. According to a 2005 International Labour Organization paper, human trafficking, or sexual servitude and forced labor, brings in about $32 billion annually, making it the second most profitable criminal enterprise after illegal arms trafficking. The vast majority of those trafficked are women and children, from all milieus of society. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
** CORRECTS SPELLING OF LASHUAN HARRIS ** San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris, right, speaks at a news conference about Lashuan Harris in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 21, 2005. Lashuan Harris, the women seen dropping her young sons into San Francisco Bay, pleaded innocent to three counts of murder. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Kamala Harris, San Francisco District Attorney (Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage for Conde Nast media group) *** Local Caption ***
Belva Davis, Kamala Harris, San Francisco District Attorney, and Laura Michalchyshyn of the Sundance Channel (Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage for Conde Nast media group)
VENICE, CA - NOVEMBER 03: San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris attends the 'Choose Or Lose Your Toys' event at the Obsolete Gallery on November 3, 2009 in Venice, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Obsolete)
En esta fotografía de archivo del 17 de junio de 2009, la fiscal de distrito de San Francisco Kamala Harris, a la izquierda, aplaude mientras el nuevo jefe de la policía George Gascon, en el podio, es presentado por el alcalde Gavin Newsom, a la derecha, en San Francisco. Las actitudes tolerantes que tuvieron hacia los indocumentados podrían descarrilar las candidaturas a gobernador de California de dos prominentes figuras de la política en San Francisco: Harris y Newson. (Foto AP/Eric Risberg, Archivo)
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris was one of six candidates taking part in the democratic primary debate for Attorney General at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, May 18, 2010. The remaining four candidates are Chris Kelly, Ted Lieu, Pedro Nava and Alberto Torrico. (Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SALINAS, CA - NOVEMBER 01: San Francisco district attorney and democratic candidate for California attorney general Kamala Harris laughs as she sits backstage before a get-out-the-vote rally at the National Steinbeck Center on November 1, 2010 in Salinas, California. With one day to go until Election Day, Jerry Brown is wrapping up his three day campaign trip throughout California in hopes of defeating his republican challenger and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010, California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives her first news conference in Los Angeles. Harris asked a federal appeals court on Tuesday, march 1, 2011, to allow gay marriages to resume while the court considers the constitutionality of the state's voter approved ban on same sex unions. The request came after the California Supreme Court said it needed the rest of the year to consider a legal question the appeals court said it needs answered before it can resolve the case. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
NEW YORK CITY, NY - OCTOBER 01: Jason Binn and Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris pose at Provocateur circa October 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Binn/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JUNE 05: Attorney General Kamala Harris attends the Fifth Annual Kidstock Music and Arts Festival at Greystone Mansion on June 5, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 18: California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks onstage at the Public Counsel's William O. Douglas Award Dinner held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 18, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
California Attorney General Kamala Harris, right, and Michael Troncoso, Senior Counsel to the Attorney General, left, listen as mortgage fraud victim Jacqueline Marcelos speaks at a roundtable of foreclosure victims at Mission Economic Development Agency in San Francisco, on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 13: California Attorney General Kamala Harris participates in TheWrap's 'The Power Of Leadership' brunch at Scarpetta on December 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for TheWrap)
Californbia Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC (Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images)
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 4, 2012 on the first day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). The DNC is expected to nominate US President Barack Obama to run for a second term as president. AFP PHOTO Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JULY 11: California Attorney General Kamala Harris (L) looks on as California Governor Jerry Brown (R) speaks to reporters after signing the California Homeowner Bill of Rights (AB 278 and SB 900) on July 11, 2012 in San Francisco, California. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Homeowners Bill of Rights that establishes landmark protection rules for mortgage loan borrowers. The laws go into effect on January 1, 2013. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris speaks with supporters at the California Democrats State Convention in San Diego, CA on Saturday, February 11, 2012 in San Diego, CA. Harris has helped Californian homeowners by lobbying for a large share of federal funds to help with the massive foreclosure crisis in the state. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - DECEMBER 12: California Attorney General Kamala Harris arrives at the Breakthrough Prize Inaugural Ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center on December 12, 2013 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 30: California State Attorney General Kamala Harris appears at the Gay Pride Parade on June 30, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Arun Nevader/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 17: California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at a news conference on May 17, 2013 at the Los Angeles Civic Center in Los Angeles, California. Harris hosted a meeting of the state's district attorneys to develop recommendations on reducing gun violance. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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In 2016, California’s Democratic presidential primary was held on June 7, after the race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and independent Bernie Sanders was all but over. In 2020, California voters could begin casting mail-in ballots as early as Feb. 3, the same day as the Iowa caucuses. Early voting in the state would continue right through the make-or-break contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Veteran political consultant Bob Shrum, who worked on the presidential campaigns of John Kerry, Al Gore and Ted Kennedy, thinks Harris will do well in her home state’s primary, but only if she makes her mark in those four bellwether states.

“The challenge for someone like Kamala Harris, for example, is to establish herself in those early primaries,” Shrum said. “I don’t think she can skip Iowa or New Hampshire and just go to South Carolina. I think you really have to establish yourself through that whole succession of primaries and be one of the three or maybe four candidates who’ll survive until Super Tuesday.”

Harris appears to be heeding Shrum’s advice. Following her massive campaign kickoff rally on Sunday in Oakland, Calif., she headed to Des Moines, Iowa, to introduce herself to voters there with a CNN town hall. While the event made headlines across the state, it also generated interest outside of Iowa, drawing record ratings on CNN.

Holding one of the early nominating contests insures that issues that matter to a state’s residents will be addressed. For that reason, both Shrum and Dean agree with California’s decision to leapfrog other states and hold its primary in March instead of June.

“It made a lot of sense for California to move up because the state has really not played any kind of decisive role in Democratic primary politics since 1972, and it gives Californians a chance early in the process of what is potentially a decisive or quasi-decisive moment to be heard,” Shrum said.

Dean, however, worries about what the change will mean for lesser-known candidates.

“I don’t blame them for moving up, because they were sort of a rubber stamp, but now they’re up so far that they’re almost going to negate their usefulness,” Dean said. “The first four primaries will winnow the field significantly. The problem with California moving this far up is that nobody is going to have any money by the time they get through the first four. It’s going to be a problem.”

Harris, whose campaign declined to comment for this article, has already proved that she is a candidate who can raise significant sums. In the 24 hours after she announced her presidential bid, she took in over $1.5 million in donations. With 475 pledged delegates at stake in California early in the nominating process of 2,382 needed to win the nomination, candidates will now be forced to allocate resources in a large state where television airtime isn’t cheap.

“California’s delegates aren’t afforded on a winner-take-all basis, they’re afforded on a proportional basis, so as long as you can clear the threshold, you can get 20 percent, 25 percent of the delegates,” Shrum said.

Besides Harris, other candidates with name recognition, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are hoping to win some of those delegates.

"Elizabeth Warren is eager to meet voters from cities and towns across the country about issues important to them and their experience, and she'll continue traveling to as many states as possible in the coming months," a Warren spokesperson said in an emailed statement when asked how California’s new primary date would affect the race.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren
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Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., attends a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Dirksen Building titled 'Foreign Cyber Threats to the United States,' featuring testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and others, January 5, 2016.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Armed Services Committee members (L-R) Sen. Martin Heinrich (D - NM), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) talk during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence chiefs testified to the committee about cyber threats to the United States and fielded questions about effects of Russian government hacking on the 2016 presidential election.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) (L) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) arrive for a hearing with the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Agency chief in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence chiefs testified to the committee about cyber threats to the United States and fielded questions about effects of Russian government hacking on the 2016 presidential election.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), speaks to and meets New England voters during a rally at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday October 24, 2016.

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Mark Wahlberg, Former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, Boston Police Commissioner Billy Evans, Former Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz, Dun 'Danny' Meng, Jessica Downes, Patrick Downes, Senator Elizabeth Warren, director Peter Berg and Harvard Law professor Bruce Mann pose on the red carpet at the 'Patriots Day' screening at the Boch Center Wang Theatre on December 14, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

(Photo by Natasha Moustache/WireImage)

Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), speaks to and meets New England voters during a rally at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday October 24, 2016.

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Former Red Sox player David Ortiz talks with Senator Elizabeth Warren at the 'Patriots Day' screening at the Boch Center Wang Theatre on December 14, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

(Photo by Natasha Moustache/WireImage)

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren hold a rally at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH on Oct. 24, 2016.

(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at a Manchester 'New Hampshire Together' Canvass Launch event in Manchester, NH on Sept. 24, 2016.

(Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren speaks onstage at EMILY's List Breaking Through 2016 at the Democratic National Convention at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on July 27, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

(Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images For EMILY's List)

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, holds up copies of Wells Fargo earnings call transcripts as she questions John Stumpf, chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo, as he testifies about the unauthorized opening of accounts by Wells Fargo during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 20, 2016.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) along with members of the Democratic Women of the Senate acknowledge the crowd on the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25.

(Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) delivers remarks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III welcomes Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on stage on Day 1 of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 25, 2016.

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks to and meets Ohio voters during a rally at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio on Monday, June 27, 2016.

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airing live, Thursday July 21, 2016 in New York. With guest Elizabeth Warren .

(Photo by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) arrives in the Capitol for the on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (R) meets with Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (L), chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court, April 14, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Garland continued to place visits to Senate members after he was nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, listens as Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. Yellen offered a subtle change to her outlook from less than a week ago, saying she and her colleagues were on watch for whether, rather than when, the U.S. economy would show clear signs of improvement.

(Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., greets guests during a rally on the east lawn of the Capitol to urge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to hold a vote on the 'Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act,' March 9, 2016. The legislation would provide a one time payment to seniors, veterans and other SSI recipients who will not get a cost-of-living adjustment this year.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators Bob Corker (L) and Elizabeth Warren (R) speak before a Senate Banking Committee on the semiannual monetary report to Congress hearing in Washington, USA on February 11, 2016.

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), talks with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) in the House chamber prior to President Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013.

(REUTERS/Charles Dharapak/Pool)

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But Dean thinks the cost of running hard in California may outweigh the benefit for some candidates.

“If I were in the lead after the first four states, let’s say I had a 1-1-3-3 finish in those contests, in no particular order, I might skip California and just say, great, a lot of delegates, great place, but I’m not spending $50 million,” Dean said. “I’ll go on to the next state.”

Voters in Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Alabama will also cast ballots on March 3.

Conversely, doing very well in the first four contests sets up the tantalizing prospect of being able to close out the primary early by running up the score in California.

“If somebody sweeps the first four primaries, then I can see that person getting 68 percent of the delegates in California and then the race basically being over,” Shrum said. “I think it would be a very foolish thing to skip California.”

Shrum and Dean agree that Harris had a stellar first week on the campaign trail, but so did other candidates.

“I thought Elizabeth Warren’s first week was terrific. I mean, look, we’re going to see a lot of terrific candidates,” Dean said.

Shrum also cautions that early momentum has a way of evaporating in presidential primaries.

“There have been plenty of people who’ve been the president of February or September,” Shrum said. “This is a long process that tests people.”

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