Newsletter: For Democrats, it’s all quickly coming down to the math


In every presidential campaign season, there’s a moment where the slow and steady marathon of the race becomes an all-out sprint. For the 2020 contest among Democrats seeking to challenge President Trump, that moment has arrived.

With three contests now completed, few can deny it will be tough for anyone to close the gap with Sen. Bernie Sanders. And get ready for California to play a major role in how it all plays out.

Nevada goes to Sanders. South Carolina is next

The junior senator from Vermont didn’t just win the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, he ended any doubt that he’s the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination. In every subset of Democratic voters that has been analyzed, targeted and pleaded with to get involved in this race, Sanders was their man.

“The 78-year-old senator not only won the youth and Latino vote by crushing margins, according to entrance polls, but he also carried white voters, those with and without college degrees, male and female voters and caucusgoers of every ideological stripe,” wrote Mark Z. Barabak and Seema Mehta in The Times’ lead story.

In caucus meetings held in casinos and beyond, there were lessons learned in Nevada for all of the Democratic candidates. Now, the focus turns to South Carolina and what might be the last chance for the man once considered the strongest of all hopefuls, former Vice President Joe Biden. The Palmetto State’s primary will hinge on the preferences of African American voters and will test Biden’s assumed strong support among their ranks.


For everyone in the race whose name is not Sanders, the race really now is all about the math of how delegates are awarded. A candidate needs 1,991 delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July.

Which brings us to the complex rules awaiting the hopefuls in California, where election day arrives next week.

54 California primaries — that’s not a typo

One thing’s for certain for those who will be eagerly awaiting the returns in California’s presidential primary: Looking at statewide vote totals won’t begin to tell you the whole story.

The real races will play out in each of California’s 53 congressional districts, where election returns will decide who wins almost 55% of the state’s Democratic delegates. And even then, it’s not just about total ballots cast but instead dependent on the level of support for any given candidate.

It’s entirely possible that a small fraction of the votes cast in a congressional district can mean the difference between a candidate receiving a few delegates ... or none at all. The same sharp line will be drawn in statewide vote totals (the 54th primary in the above explanation) that determine the allocation of 90 “at-large” convention delegates, the single largest subset, as well as 54 delegates representing state Democratic leaders and elected officials.

Certainly, if the numbers aren’t close — if, for example, Sanders’ dominance of the race continues — then we’ll have a good idea of the outcome even before the final tally is released in early April. But if not, candidates and the nation will have to wait weeks to know whether California changed the race and, if so, by how much.

And it’s hugely important to remember that the ballots are already being cast across the Golden State. Almost 2 million ballots, 11% of those mailed to voters, had been returned as of this weekend, according to information collected by Political Data, a for-profit elections analysis firm. More than 1 in 5 ballots sent to older California voters have been returned; for the youngest voters, the return rate is about 5%.


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Election essentials

— “I’ll just say that as much as I love Joe Biden, I just want to ensure that the person that we choose to be our next president is really on the right side of the people.” An in-depth look at how those who live in Wilmington, Del., see their hometown Democratic hero.

— Trump’s national security advisor said Sunday that he has no knowledge of intelligence agency warnings that Russia is trying once again to help the president by interfering in the 2020 campaign.

— The president’s journey to India this week is primarily about something other than governing, something that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised: a massive, largely adoring crowd, perhaps the largest he’s ever addressed.

— Here in California, voters are weighing in on a $15-billion school bond in next week’s primary election.

Today’s essentials

Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to marshal the full force of his administration to alleviate California’s worsening homelessness crisis in last week’s State of the State address. The stakes are high for his current term and his future political aspirations.


— Columnist George Skelton writes that Newsom hopes to bring peace to California’s water wars, but some worry he’ll ultimately give in to Trump.

— California voters legalized pot in 2016. But for many seeking jobs in state government, cannabis use has become an obstacle to getting hired.

— More than 70 former clerks of the late federal appeals court Judge Stephen Reinhardt signed a statement last week expressing support for a woman who said Reinhardt sexually harassed her.

— In few places has the effect of Trump’s makeover of the federal judiciary been felt more powerfully than in the sprawling 9th Circuit, which covers California and eight other states.

— Concerned too many Californians were unaware they would face a hefty fine for not having health insurance, officials have loosened a state law meant to push uninsured residents into buying medical coverage.

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