LOS ANGELES -- Before California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon even knew that Kamala Harris, his preferred candidate, had backed out of the presidential race, his phone was buzzing with a surrogate from one of her rivals to gauge his interest in endorsing. By day's end, he'd heard from three other campaigns.
"Tom Steyer tried to reach out," Rendon, a Democrat from Lakewood, Calif., said of the billionaire activist, "but apparently he had the wrong number." (They eventually connected Wednesday.)
The instantaneous scramble for Democratic presidential candidates to bolster their California support after Harris' sudden departure on Tuesday added to the uncertainty in the lead-up to the state's March 3 primary. Four different candidates have led in Golden State polls over the course of the campaign, and two billionaires, Steyer and recent entrant Michael R. Bloomberg, have the capacity to shake the standings up further by blanketing the state with TV ads.
Harris, the first-term California senator, had hardly locked down her home base. Her decline to single-digit support in California polls mirrored her slump nationally.
A Los Angeles Times/Berkeley IGS survey conducted just before her withdrawal found most Harris backers would jump to former Vice President Joe Biden or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., would pull in modest support.
"California voters pay more attention to national politics than they do to state or local," said Anthony Reyes, a Los Angeles-based communications strategist. "National figures like Biden, Warren and Bernie obviously have strong support, so they stand to benefit the most."
History suggests that Californians' candidate preferences will shift dramatically in February as results roll in from the first four states to hold Democratic nominating contests. Winners of the early races typically benefit from a burst of national media coverage that makes them look like viable contenders, while the losers struggle to be seen as having a real shot at victory.
Most voters prefer candidates they see as having a reasonable chance of winning, said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
"What happens in Iowa, New Hampshire, and even in Nevada and South Carolina, will have much more impact on what happens in California than anything that's happened so far," said Mellman, who has worked on California campaigns. "The momentum that comes out of the earlier races has a profound impact."
Even though she lagged with the state's voters, Harris' biggest advantage in California was her strong ties to its political establishment, from high-profile elected officials to moneyed donors to influential liberal interest groups.