Politics & Policy

Clinton Camp Scrambles to Avoid California Disaster

Clinton speaks at a rally in El Centro, Calif., June 2, 2016. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
A loss could deepen the rift between establishment Democrats and Sanders supporters, damaging the party's prospects for November.

After a grueling campaign that outlived the GOP’s own fierce contest, Hillary Clinton stands at last on the brink of clinching her party’s nomination. Barring an unfathomable upset, the former secretary of state will become the presumptive Democratic standard-bearer next Tuesday. New Jersey will likely deliver the prize, pushing her over the 2,383-delegate threshold and all but ensuring her ascendancy to the dais in Philadelphia come July.

But there’s suddenly a fly in the ointment, and it has the Clinton campaign running scared in their hour of triumph. Clinton has led Bernie Sanders by a comfortable margin in California for the last few months, but earlier this week, polls there unexpectedly began to show a tightening race, forcing her to cancel several appearances in New Jersey in favor of more face-time with Golden State voters. She and her husband will hold over 30 campaign events across the state between Thursday and Tuesday — a remarkable full-court press that underscores the Clinton camp’s frantic effort to staunch the bleeding.

After plowing millions of dollars into ad buys and social-media outreach and crisscrossing the state over the last three weeks, Sanders is clearly relishing the payoff. “[Clinton’s] getting nervous lately,” he boasted to supporters in Oakland on Monday, as polls starting showing the race tightening to within two percentage points. “I don’t want to add to her anxiety, so don’t tell her: We are going to win here in California.”

It’s not just Clinton’s pride at stake. With the Democratic party already deeply divided, a come-from-behind Sanders victory in a populous and diverse state such as California could convince the senator and his backers to fight on, in the hopes of convincing enough superdelegates to defect from Clinton. Though that strategy has little chance of success, it could still cause chaos at the Democratic convention. And if Sanders and his horde of enthusiastic fans feel cheated, it may very well make the split between them and the Democratic establishment backing Clinton permanent, damaging the party’s general-election prospects.

RELATED: Hillary Clinton Isn’t Closing the Deal in the California Primary

“I think going into the convention limping, when the Republicans are clearly rallying around their nominee, would be very harmful [to Clinton],” says Michael Colbruno, a California-based Democratic consultant. “I think it would be very difficult.”

If Sanders does win California, some Democrats believe it will make it harder to convince the scrappy senator that the fight is over, even though the math is clearly stacked against him. In that case, Clinton would face enormous pressure to appease Sanders’s supporters, forcing her to choose between a general-election pivot to the center and yet another leftward turn to keep the Democratic party together. “Let’s say Sanders wins and he’s feeling emboldened, and he clearly is contemplating the notion of going into the convention and hanging tough — part of that decision depends on what Hillary Clinton says or does about Bernie Sanders,” says Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist from California. “I think the Clinton campaign needs to address those frustrations and respect those voters, and take Bernie Sanders and his constituency seriously.”

#share#Compounding these questions is a pervading sense of uncertainty surrounding Tuesday’s outcome. California’s unique demographics and vast geography make the state notoriously difficult to poll. This year’s massive spike in new-voter registrations and a widespread vote-by-mail system that kicked off a full 30 days before the primary make for even more uncertainty. “People in both campaigns are throwing out their models and kind of hitting the ground running,” says Paul Mitchell, a Sacramento-based political-data analyst.

For Sanders, that’s meant a focus on the state’s historically powerful progressive bloc, a largely white constituency concentrated in California’s suburbs and rural regions. Longtime Democratic strategist Doug Herman says Sanders has spent less time in San Francisco and Los Angeles than in rural enclaves, where the Vermont senator can draw massive crowds and dominate a local news cycle. His TV, telephone, and social-media outreach all tap into general discontent with D.C., with many ads exhorting voters to “send a message to Washington” by backing him.

Though the Clinton campaign initially put fewer resources than Sanders into California, they abruptly began flooding the zone over the past week.

Though the Clinton campaign initially put fewer resources than Sanders into California, they abruptly began flooding the zone over the past week, running a robust telephone campaign and expanding TV, radio, and online advertising. Her campaign is specifically targeting the state’s powerful Latino constituency, running spots where DREAMers unload their emotional burdens onto a teary-eyed Clinton in town halls packed with Hispanics. She’s also pushed hard into urban areas with large African-American populations, seeking to boost turnout in communities that have historically proven friendly to her and her husband.

The data available so far give both campaigns cause for trepidation. Despite a jump in Latino registration over the last two months, Mitchell points out that Hispanics have been voting via mail by lower margins than expected — a fact likely to depress Clinton’s final count if those who don’t vote by mail fail to show up on Tuesday. But not everything looks rosy for Sanders, either. While young voters made up over 60 percent of the surge in voter registration, Mitchell says they’ve been responsible for less than 10 percent of ballots received by mail up to now. Independents who vote by mail in California must also request a presidential-primary ballot, and so far only around 15 percent of them have done so. Unless Sanders can get both these groups to the polls in large numbers on Tuesday, he’s likely to face defeat.

RELATED: Hillary’s Sputtering Campaign 

With the exception of some Sanders backers — Michael Lighty, the director of public policy at the pro-Sanders California Nurses Association, is positively sanguine about the senator’s chances — most Democrats give Clinton a slight edge in California. Several say recent polls are overstating the number of independents likely to vote, which has doubtless contributed to Sanders’s recent surge. They also point to Governor Jerry Brown’s endorsement of Clinton earlier this week, saying his progressive bona fides and sky-high approval ratings should help assuage doubt about Clinton among skeptical constituencies. “Jerry was Bernie before Bernie became Bernie,” says Herman, noting that Brown ran the same kind of populist campaign against Bill Clinton during the 1992 Democratic primary. “It’s the most powerful endorsement in the state for Democratic candidates, and it’s definitely going to move votes.”

#related#Still, the fact that the race in California remains so close is unnerving — at least to those in the state’s Democratic establishment, which has united behind Clinton. “These people who are new to the system are convinced there needs to be a revolution, and if they don’t get that they won’t vote,” says Colbruno. He worries that the proportion of primary voters who sit out come November will be higher than in other cycles because of the anger Sanders has encouraged in his supporters.

“My greatest fear is a Trump- or Sanders-[style general-election] campaign where everything about America’s wrong,” he says. “I just think it’s very dangerous.”

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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