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Think the 2020 Pennsylvania primary won’t matter? Think again.

The sprawling field of presidential candidates, combined with a nominating process that awards delegates on a proportional basis, point to a hotly contested 2020 primary in Pennsylvania.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joe Biden during a Democratic presidential primary debate in November in Atlanta.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joe Biden during a Democratic presidential primary debate in November in Atlanta.Read moreJohn Bazemore / AP

NEW YORK — In most presidential campaigns, early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire get outsize attention because they help narrow the field and can even make or break a candidate in the winter. By the time the Pennsylvania primary rolls around in the spring, the nominating contest can seem like a foregone conclusion.

Things might be different this time.

Pennsylvania Democrats expect the state’s April 28 primary to play a key role in deciding who will run against President Donald Trump in 2020. That’s according to interviews with more than a dozen elected officials and party insiders who gathered in New York this weekend for an annual retreat of cocktail parties, dinners, and fund-raisers known as Pennsylvania Society.

Democrats said the sprawling field of candidates, combined with a nominating process that awards delegates on a proportional basis, point to a hotly contested primary in the Keystone State.

“Normally I would have thought the [fourth] Tuesday in April is way too late,” former Gov. Ed Rendell said. “But this election, with four strong candidates going in, the likelihood that it’ll be over by Pennsylvania and someone will have over 50% of the delegates — that would be a long shot. It’s now likely that our primary will be important.”

Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia, sees a gap in the calendar between Super Tuesday in March, when voters in 14 states cast ballots, and voting in his state.

“You could potentially have six or seven weeks when we are the center of the political universe,” said Boyle, predicting that former Vice President Joe Biden will win the Pennsylvania primary and the nomination. “I think there will be a clear front-runner at that point, but it still won’t be locked up by the time April 28 rolls around.”

That, Boyle said, could make Pennsylvania’s primary the date the nomination is “clinched.”

Pennsylvania is a critical state in the general election, after Trump captured its 20 Electoral College votes in 2016. Trump was the first Republican to win the state in a presidential election in almost 30 years, and razor-thin victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin helped elevate him to the White House.

Anxiety about the relevance of Pennsylvania’s primary is a quadrennial tradition. Some lawmakers want to move up the state’s primary election. A state Senate committee approved legislation last month that would move the election from the fourth Tuesday in April to the third Tuesday in March, effective in 2024. The measure is pending before the full Senate.

“I wish it were a little earlier, somewhere around the Super Tuesday date,” Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said Saturday.

Polls in the early voting states and nationally show a clear top tier of candidates: Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. Biden remains the front-runner in national surveys, but Buttigieg has ascended to the top in Iowa and New Hampshire, with Warren and Sanders also leading Biden in those states.

The electoral map improves considerably for Biden after Iowa and New Hampshire, as states with large populations of minority voters, like Nevada and South Carolina, cast ballots.

The late entry of Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and former mayor of New York, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick reflected the party establishment’s anxiety that the Democratic standard-bearer may be too liberal to defeat Trump. Bloomberg, who launched his campaign last month, is skipping the early voting states and focusing on the March 3 Super Tuesday states, which include California, Texas, and North Carolina.

Significant questions remain about the viability of Bloomberg’s candidacy. But he plans to blanket the Super Tuesday states with tens of millions of dollars in television advertising. And the possibility that he could emerge after March 3 with a haul of delegates only raises the likelihood that the race will remain unsettled by the time the race comes to Pennsylvania.

In the Democratic primary, delegates are apportioned to each candidate who receives at least 15% of the vote in a state or district. (Some delegates are allocated based on the statewide vote, and others via votes in congressional and legislative districts.)

“There’s no way Bloomberg can come up with 50% of the delegates before Milwaukee,” Rendell said. “He’s hoping he’ll be like in third place and then get to [the Democratic convention in] Milwaukee, and the Biden folks will collapse. That’s a maybe far-fetched but somewhat realistic scenario.”

If no clear leader emerges after Super Tuesday, Pennsylvania will loom as a big prize.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton was trailing Barack Obama in delegates when she won the state by 10 percentage points. But it wasn’t enough to overcome his lead.

The last time Pennsylvania played a decisive role in a presidential primary was in 1976, when the state helped make Jimmy Carter the Democratic nominee. As in 2020, that primary field was also quite crowded.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Montgomery County Democrat widely expected to run for governor in 2022, said Pennsylvania’s primary will be relevant in 2020.

“There seems to be an opportunity to have multiple winners in the early state primaries and caucuses,” said Shapiro, who has not endorsed in the race. “So that lends itself to having a longer primary process.”

State Treasurer Joe Torsella, a Montgomery County Democrat and another potential gubernatorial candidate, also expects Pennsylvania’s primary to have an impact: “It seems like there are too many strong people to say this will be over early.”