Politics

Don’t Count on Getting the California Primary Results Tonight!

A public service announcement for the anxious and impatient.

A long line of voters stand outside on a sunny day.
Voters wait to cast their ballots at the Buena Vista Branch Library in Burbank, California, on Tuesday. Robyn Beck/Getty Images

Today is the day that California closes the polls in the primary election. Everyone is anxious to know what happens there, with the state’s huge numbers of delegates up for grabs. But today is almost certainly not the day anyone will know those results.

California has a laudable commitment to participation in its elections. In addition to Election Day in-person voting on Super Tuesday, its vote-by-mail period began on Feb. 3—maybe too early, since the election doesn’t look now what it looked like then—and those mail ballots are still valid so long as they’re postmarked or dropped off at a voting location Tuesday. A majority of Californians take advantage of this privilege, and more than usual may have held onto their ballots until Election Day given the uncertainty in the race.

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What those of us in the media, and those of you closely following the election, should not do, then, is either FREAK OUT IN PANIC or DECLARE TOTAL VICTORY based on whatever results we see late Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, because those results will be far from final.

We say this because a premature victory declaration or total freakout has happened every time since California became a largely vote-by-mail state, and it is always annoying—especially when we in the media are the perpetrators.

In the 2016 California Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton appeared to have won a hearty 13-point victory according to the ballots counted that day. But, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump writes, when an additional 1.7 million ballots were counted “over the following weeks”—we’re talking weeks, people—Bernie Sanders had cut the deficit to 7 points. Clinton already had an insurmountable pledged delegate lead at the time, as California’s primary came at the tail end of the nominating season, so the delay didn’t matter too much in the scheme of things. But in the 2018 midterm elections, the numbers available on election night made it seem that numerous Republican members of Congress might surprisingly keep their seats. By the time votes were fully counted weeks later, many of them would lose, leading to some blown calls from authoritative sources.

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Tuesday’s California primary is not the conclusion of anything. It’s not at the end of a primary calendar, when the nominee is all-but-certified anyway, and it’s not a general election, when all campaigns end. Yet it comes at a critical point in the primary, when campaigns are looking for narratives to spin and impressions of “momentum” to create in voters’ minds as they move forward to some of the other major nominating contests in the weeks ahead. In other words, how everyone reacts to partial results from California in the next 24 hours could, inadvisably, have a serious impact on what happens next in the campaign. So if you see someone goin’ nuts, declaring it’s over for a particular candidate based on Tuesday night’s California results, say to that person: Hey buddy, knock it off!!

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