The convergence of two recent changes to primary voting in California is poised to tip the scales in the Republican presidential race, contributing to what could be one of the quickest party primaries in recent memory and kickstarting a 2020 rematch for the Oval Office.
A GOP rule change approved in 2023 promises all 169 of California’s delegates to any Republican candidate amassing over half of primary votes, with former President Donald Trump expected to bag almost all California counties in a winner-take-all scenario. When the rule passed among state party officials last summer, pundits and political experts speculated it had the ability to either hand Trump an easy win, or provide a windfall to a Republican opponent who managed to get over half the vote, even if by a razor slim margin.
Eric McGhee, policy director and senior fellow at the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, said the GOP change elicited different conversations last summer, prior to the primaries and when the Republican field challenging Trump had yet to collapse.
“Trump was getting polling numbers that weren’t that much above 50%, so you could imagine a world where his polling slid and he fell under that 50% threshold,” McGhee said of last summer. “It’s still of course possible that something could happen in the campaign that would alter that dynamic, but right now, the polling suggests he is in a pretty good place.”
With DeSantis now out of the race and a succession of runaway wins by Trump in early state primaries, it appears nothing less than a force majeure, or legal hurdles, could prevent Trump from clinching the Republican party’s nomination in March.
That latest polling puts Trump in the position of a landslide victory.
University of Southern California’s report released Feb 1 gives Trump a 66% lead among the state’s Republican voters, outpacing former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley’s 28%. An average of surveys compiled by statistical analysis news site 538 also shows Trump at a massive advantage, with more than 71% of the Republican vote in California, compared to Haley’s roughly 18%.
How primary date and delegate rule changes are linked
The rule change was spurred by the state’s decision to move primaries up several months, from what had long been a mid-June date to early March.
Ellie Hockenbury, deputy executive director of the California Republican Party, said this forced the party to get in compliance with Republican National Party rules, moving the delegate allocation system to proportional. The exception, however, is in the case of a candidate that receives 50-plus-one of all Republican primary votes, in which case delegate allocation is winner-takes-all. Hockenbury said the change to proportionality was required by RNC rules, while the winner-takes-all element was not explicitly required.
“It was ultimately decided that this is the right path for our primary, and the general belief we’ve heard from a lot of delegates is that majority-take-all is a system that rewards the candidate who’s clearly displayed an ability to win over a majority of California Republican voters,” she said.
In a statement released shortly after the rule change passed, California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said it will encourage candidates to spend more time in the state campaigning and will give California an “opportunity to play a more significant role” in the race for the party’s nomination. While the March 5 primary does give California’s delegate load a greater value mathematically in the early voting weeks, Trump’s sway over more than half of voters puts the state firmly in his grasp, outside the group of states likely to see intensive campaigning between Haley and Trump.
California is home to one of the most expensive media markets in the country, and is expected to see the most spending this election year. A report by AdImpact estimates the 2023-24 election cycle will be the most expensive of all time.
Not all Republicans backed the change
Despite the pronouncements of support among the state’s Republican party officials, the move did attract controversy and detractors, including the DeSantis campaign, who decried the rule as a blow to their ability to pick up delegates. In a statement published by the Los Angeles Times, Ken Cuccinelli, founder of a DeSantis-supporting PAC and former Trump administration official criticized the policy.
“Smoke-filled back rooms do not reflect the will of or benefit voters in any state,” he said. “Yet across the country, games are afoot to enhance the potential outcome of primary elections for one former president who half of the Republican electorate no longer wants as the party leader.”
More than 870 delegates will be in play among a dozen-plus states Super Tuesday. Texas also major player, with just seven fewer delegates than California’s 169.
Republican presidential candidates must pick up 1,215 delegates to seal the nomination, which isn’t mathematically possible for any Republican candidate, even if they were running unopposed, until after Super Tuesday. Additionally, some state parties award delegates based on the proportion of votes each candidate receives, while others, now including California, implement the winner-takes-all system, making predictions less straight-forward.
However, should Trump continue the performance seen in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, it’s reasonable to expect the former president will bag enough delegates mid- or late-March. Should California’s massive delegate haul go to Trump, these predictions are likely to get sharper in the days following Super Tuesday.
As much as the GOP rule change has figured into projections and delegate calculations, McGhee says it’s not likely something that voters are paying attention to or is affecting their voting decisions.
“My guess is that for most voters, this is insider baseball, and they’re probably not even aware that this change is made,” he said. “They just go and vote for the candidate they like.”
Kathryn Palmer is the California 2024 Elections Fellow for USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] and follow her on X @KathrynPlmr.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: California primary: New state party rules could accelerate Trump nomination