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With 2020 Democrats, California voters are balancing passion and pragmatism

For decades, California has been largely an afterthought in Democratic presidential primaries. But this year, the state moved up its contest to Super Tuesday -- thus increasing its level of influence on winnowing a crowded candidate field. Stephanie Sy reports and joins John Yang to discuss how California’s diverse electorate and experimentation with progressive policies could shape the 2020 race.

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  • John Yang:

    California is the nation's most populous state, and with more than 400 delegates at stake, it's a big prize in the Democratic presidential primary.

    This year, state officials have moved up voting to March 3, Super Tuesday.

    National correspondent Stephanie Sy traveled to Southern California to hear what voters there have to say.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Around picnic tables and kitchen counters, California voters are torn between hope…

  • Elias Alvarado:

    I am very confident that we will move in a better direction.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    … and fear.

  • Jois Hofmann:

    I'm really fearful for our democracy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Among this set of Democrats in the Los Angeles suburb of South Whittier, the talk is grounded in the experience that comes from a life long lived.

  • Jois Hofmann:

    So, I'm with a candidate who is being realistic.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    These are voters less moved by vision and big ideas, but attentive to policy specifics.

  • Woman:

    We want our private insurance.

  • Elias Alvarado:

    I like the fact that people should have options.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kathie (ph), Elias, Jois, and Jan are all undecided, but former Vice President Biden feels like a safe fallback.

  • Jois Hofmann:

    We need someone who can defeat Trump. And, right now, I'm certainly leaning with Biden, although I'm such a strong feminist, it hurts me.

  • Woman:

    Will I be voting on March 3 in the primary?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    At a millennial phone bank event in Westwood, a stark contrast. The under-30 voters are more interested in who inspires them, and most have made up their mind.

  • Rachel Bracker:

    I have my candidate that I have chosen, Pete Buttigieg.

  • Woman:

    I think I'm going to support Elizabeth Warren.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For decades, the state of California has been mostly an afterthought for Democratic presidential primary candidates, but, this year, with its earlier primary, the Golden State could be decisive.

  • Christina Bellantoni:

    Voters will get their vote-by-mail ballots the night of the Iowa caucuses.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    Hello, Los Angeles!

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's why, more than in the past, candidates have been coming to the state courting voters and holding rallies, not just fund-raisers, says longtime political analyst Christina Bellantoni.

  • Christina Bellantoni:

    We used to vote in June. And by doing it in March, the idea was that you're right after the first four traditional voting and caucusing states. You can have a significant impact.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    The candidate who wins here, in the largest state in the country will, in all likelihood, win the nomination.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But the most populous state is notoriously difficult to run a campaign in. It's a lot of ground to cover and a unique set of challenges.

  • Christina Bellantoni:

    Reaching that number of voters is just so expensive. I mean, you could spend $20 million on television ads in California and not really make a dent.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But, despite the hurdles, many Californian Democrats, like working mom Amanda Nottke, are energized.

  • Amanda Nottke:

    I mean, I'm excited. We're spoiled for choice in a lot of ways.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Amanda was among a small contingent of Senator Elizabeth Warren supporters gathered for a Sunday morning beach cleanup in Santa Monica.

    There's been a lot of talk about which candidate would do better in the general election, a progressive candidate or a moderate. Where do you fall when it comes to electability?

  • Andy Hattala:

    I want someone that is electable. But I feel like Elizabeth Warren is the best of both worlds. She's smart. She has plans. She is a progressive. But I think she also knows the Senate and she knows Congress and she knows how to get things through.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And back at the phone bank in Westwood, Rachel Bracker says this is a pivotal moment.

  • Rachel Bracker:

    It feels like we're kind of on the cusp of something, where our country can either go towards a more progressive future, where we're doing things like addressing climate change, addressing health care, and addressing a growing college, an automobile, and home debt, or we're going to ignore those issues and go towards the sort of isolationist, less united country.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    A recent poll by The Los Angeles Times found Democratic primary voters in California ranked climate change as their number one priority for the next president.

  • Matt Valdivia:

    The climate — climate is getting worse every year. Every year, as it's getting hotter, we're not getting rains as much anymore.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Matt and Wendy Valdivia, who live in San Bernardino County, are one of thousands of Californians who have been impacted by devastating wildfires.

  • Matt Valdivia:

    That's my house starting to go up in flames.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    They lost their home a little over a month ago in the Hillside Fire. The memories are still raw.

  • Matt Valdivia:

    So I just — I saw it right there just completely engulfed in flames. And it was burned to a crisp.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So it was a total loss?

  • Matt Valdivia:

    Total loss. Total everything. Everything was gone.

  • Wendy Valdivia:

    Like, what was all that for? But, I mean, we're alive.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Matt and Wendy lost irreplaceable letters to their children and photos stored on a stranded laptop, but they also lost the sense of security they thought they had gained when they purchased their first home. They had saved up for two years to buy the house.

  • Matt Valdivia:

    It's still almost check to check with everything that has to — that goes within a family. You know, you have got your mortgage, and then the prices in California aren't cheap either, you know? And that just keeps rising and rising.

    You got your — your health care is rising and rising.

  • Wendy Valdivia:

    Insurance is too. Everything is — you need insurance for everything.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The Valdivias face the kind of systemic challenges that make Senator Bernie sander's message resonate with them.

  • Matt Valdivia:

    He's been there through a fight for a lot of things that weren't popular.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Matt calls himself a hard-core Bernie supporter, but like all the Democrats we spoke to, he agrees the 2020 election is about more than any single candidate.

    And for many voters, like Jan Baird, the bottom line is clear.

  • Jan Baird:

    I hate to say this, but the most important quality is that they can beat Trump.

    That sentiment you just heard from Jan Baird, you will hear from a lot of California voters. They feel conflicted between supporting the Democratic candidate they really like and supporting the candidate they think can beat President Trump in 2020.

    There is a lot of anxiety about a repeat of the 2016 election here.

    And that's why the debate that "PBS NewsHour" and Politico are hosting tomorrow night here at Loyola Marymount University is being closely watched. A lot of undecided voters want to hear from these candidates to see who they will back in the end — John.

  • John Yang:

    And, Stephanie, moving California up in the primary calendar means it is going to be the first big diverse state to test the candidates' appeal.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It is the biggest state on Super Tuesday, and it is the most diverse state.

    A lot of Latin — Latino voters here, a lot of Asian-American voters here. And there is not a single candidate that voters of color here are coalescing behind.

    I will say that the latest polls do show that Senator Sanders has an edge with Latino voters.

  • John Yang:

    And California is also interesting, because so many of the policies that the Democratic candidates are debating right now have actually been enacted out there.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Yes, I like so say, John, that California is sort of a laboratory for progressive policies.

    They have the governor's mansion. They have a supermajority in the legislature here, so that has meant, the last two years, they have passed a lot of progressive legislation. They have stricter emissions controls for vehicles here. They have stricter gun control.

    They recently passed a bill protecting gig economy freelancers, which is still being debated in this state. So what you see is a lot of the big ideas that we will hear candidates talk about in the debate tomorrow night actually being enacted in this state. And, for that reason, Californians like to think of themselves as trendsetters.

  • John Yang:

    Stephanie Sy at the site of tomorrow night's "PBS NewsHour"/Politico debate.

    Stephanie, you're going to be part of our PBS coverage tomorrow night; is that right?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Yes, I will be part of the preshow, the halftime show, and the post-show, along with my colleagues. I hope everyone tunes in.

  • John Yang:

    Preshow starts at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, and, remember, the full debate starting at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on PBS stations.

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