The California Primary: A 2020 Guide

Learn more about the California Primary and why it's so important for clinching a party's presidential nomination.
Santa Barbara County’s election prep (Credit: Paul Wellman via Santa Barbara Independent)

Santa Barbara County’s election prep (Credit: Paul Wellman via Santa Barbara Independent)

When is the California primary?

California holds its primary election on March 3, 2020. Previously held in June, this year California is one of 14 Super Tuesday states, along with American Samoa and Democrats Abroad. California changed its primary to the first Tuesday following the first Monday in March specifically to increase its impact, since June is at the end of the primary season after most delegates are awarded.

How many winnable delegates does California offer?

For the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, California has a total of 495 delegates, 416 pledged to the winners of the primary and 79 unpledged or “superdelegates.” California divides its delegates proportionally, so every candidate receiving at least 15% of the vote gets a share.

The 2020 Republican primary in California offers 172 delegates. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, it’s winner take all; otherwise, delegates are awarded proportionally after reaching a 20% of the vote threshold.

Who won in 2016?

On June 7, 2016, Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary over Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) 53.4% to 45.7%, with the nominal remainder of the vote split among five candidates: Willie Wilson; Michael Steinberg; Rocky De La Fuente; Henry Hewes; and Keith Judd. As delegates are awarded proportionally among all candidates receiving at least 15% of the vote, Clinton received 254 and Sanders got 221.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump won the California primary with 74.7% of the vote over John Kasich (11.4), Ted Cruz (9.5), Ben Carson (3.7) and Jim Gilmore (0.7). As Trump won more than 50% of the vote, he took all 172 Republican delegates.

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How does the California primary work?

Though both the major parties hold their primary in California on March 3, 2020, the state’s Republicans and Democrats handle their primaries completely differently.


In 2020, the Democrats will hold a semi-closed primary and only registered Democrats or No Party Preference (NPP) voters can participate. They award a total of 416 pledged or “bound” delegates obligated to vote for specific candidates at the Democratic National Convention, which will be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin starting July 13, 2020. California Democrats also have 79 unpledged delegates or superdelegates, who are free to vote for whomever they choose at the Convention, but they cannot vote on the first ballot.

Some of the delegates are awarded state-wide, and some by district. In both cases, a candidate must receive 15% of the vote to get any delegates, and then delegates are awarded proportionally. The California Democratic Party will also send 35 alternates to the convention.


The California Republican primary is closed, meaning only registered Republicans can vote. Any NPP voters would have to change their registration to Republican to participate. This closed primary led to false rumors that Trump had been “kicked off the ballot” in California, as people not registered as a Republican were not offered a Republican primary ballot among their choices of Democratic, Libertarian and American Independent.

California Republicans award 172 delegates, and in 2020, a candidate must secure at least 20% of the vote to win a percentage of those delegates. If a candidate wins more than 50% of the statewide vote, it’s then winner take all.

How much impact does winning California have on the election?

As the most populous state in the US, California controls just over ten percent of the electoral college, or 55 out of 538 electors. Winning California doesn’t always clinch the national victory, however. No Republican presidential candidate has won California in the general election since George H. W. Bush in 1988.

Similarly, when it comes to primaries, California packs a punch, though not always a winning blow, as Hillary Clinton’s primary win over former President Barack Obama in 2008 demonstrates. For Democrats, the next-highest number of delegates comes from New York, with 320. Given the new Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020, primary date, California will likely play a pivotal role in narrowing the wide field of Democratic candidates.

In 2016, even with its late June date, California secured the nomination for Trump. Because of the number of candidates, there was much talk of a possible contested convention, and that talk continued even after Trump passed the delegate threshold. He was nonetheless named the Republican candidate at the Republican National Convention later that year.

Past winners of the California primary.

California’s past primary winners, since the modern primary system, by party:


  • 2016: Hillary Clinton
  • 2012: No primary
  • 2008: Hillary Clinton
  • 2004: John Kerry
  • 2000: Al Gore
  • 1996: Bill Clinton
  • 1992: Bill Clinton
  • 1988: Michael Dukakis
  • 1984: Gary Hart
  • 1980: Ted Kennedy
  • 1976: Jerry Brown
  • 1972: George McGovern


  • 2016: Donald Trump
  • 2012: Mitt Romney
  • 2008: John McCain
  • 2004: George W. Bush
  • 2000: George W. Bush
  • 1996: Bob Dole
  • 1992: George H. W. Bush
  • 1988: George H. W. Bush
  • 1984: Ronald Reagan
  • 1980: Ronald Reagan
  • 1976: Ronald Reagan
  • 1972: Richard Nixon

The Rantt Rundown

After moving its primary from June, California joins the Super Tuesday group 16 primaries on March 3, 2020. Offering up to 495 Democratic delegates to be apportioned among candidates receiving more than 15% of the vote, California will likely help shape the Democratic nomination. While the Democratic primary ballot is available to Democrats and unaffiliated or NPP voters, only registered Republicans can obtain a Republican primary ballot. This restriction led to a false rumor that Trump had been “kicked off” the 2020 ballot in California. Given the size of its electorate, winning California is an advantage for presidential hopefuls, but as history demonstrates, it doesn’t guarantee success in the general election or even in securing the nomination.

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Rantt 101 // 2020 / Democratic Party / Elections / Republican Party