Before the first vote is counted in California on Tuesday, the Hillary Clinton campaign—and probably the TV networks—will announce that she has clinched the nomination. With her decisive victory in the Virgin Islands caucuses on Saturday, and after incorporating unofficial superdelegate pledges, she is fewer than 70 delegates short of a majority before Puerto Rico (with 60 pledged delegates at stake) weighs in on Sunday, also likely in her favor. She’s almost sure to win more than half of New Jersey’s 142 delegates on Tuesday, which means that race will likely be called while the West Coast is still voting.
Bernie Sanders, plainly, is just California dreamin’ if he thinks a victory there will get him the nomination.And yet, the overall primary race could end on a bitter note for Clinton if she loses most of the final six states including the biggest delegate prize, California. Such an end may not just be a consolation prize for the runner-up, but it could turn the convention into a full-blown battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. And that means Clinton would have to wait much longer for all those Sanders supporters she hopes will help her against Trump in the fall.
History tells a somewhat grim tale of how critical California can be. Between 1976 and 1984, California Democrats made it a habit to kick the presumptive nominee in the teeth on the last day of balloting, leading to various degrees of unruliness at the convention. The Democratic candidate lost two of those three general elections.
By winning the most delegates on the final day of the primaries (not counting the June 14 District of Columbia primary), Sanders would feel emboldened to defy the calls from establishment Dems to drop out. He would be more inclined to follow through on his pledge to contest the nomination at the convention. He would likely fight harder and concede less regarding the platform and presidential nomination rules. And because he would have close to a majority of pledged delegates (he already has 46 percent), he would be tempted to take more disputes to the convention floor in hopes of winning battles outright instead of settling for watered down language.
All of the above would make for, in Sanders’ words, a “messy” convention, not the stage-managed show of unity to which we’ve become accustomed. That could make for an even messier general election than we already expect. And a much weaker Hillary Clinton.
For now, several late polls have pegged California to be a two-point race, including the widely respected Field poll, though others like the Los Angeles Times poll give Clinton a double-digit lead. Pollsters may be underestimating the Sanders vote, since nearly 2 million Californians have joined the voter rolls since January, mostly voters who are eligible to vote in the Democratic primary. And nearly two-thirds of them are under the age of 35, the Sanders sweet spot.
Much of the primary has settled along predictable lines. Sanders has won nearly of the activist-heavy caucus states, while Clinton cleans up partisan-heavy closed primary states. Sanders commands the youth vote and the independent vote, but Clinton’s big spread with older voters and moderates has made the difference in key states. While Clinton has been able to encroach on his turf – picking off liberal Massachusetts and blue-collar Ohio – Sanders has yet to turn the tables. California finally presents with him an opportunity to break from the script.
A California win would be the biggest geographic win in Sanders’ final tally. Up until now, Sanders has won only one primary with more than 100 delegates available (Michigan) and has only won nine of the 31 primary states. That has raised questions about his revolution’s ability to materialize in large turnout environments. California could neutralize such concerns.
It could also represent somewhat of a demographic breakthrough, since California would become the least-white primary state in his column. Only 52 percent of 2008 Democratic primary voters were white. But overcoming that demographic hurdle is less challenging for Sanders than at first blush. Only seven percent of the 2008 electorate was African-American, Sanders’ weakest racial constituency. Nearly one-third of the electorate was composed of Latinos, who skew young and have given Sanders a healthy vote in certain states including Illinois (50 percent) and Nevada (53 percent), though not in New York, Texas or Florida. The NBC/Marist poll of California has Sanders up three with Latinos, while Field has Clinton up four.
How damaging would the loss be to Clinton? The renegade Democrat pollster Douglas Schoen argued in a Wall Street Journal column that it could prompt superdelegates to bail on Clinton, or even call in Joe Biden or John Kerry off the bench. But Schoen’s ties to the Democratic Party have weakened in recent years, having urged President Obama not to run for re-election in 2012 and prodded Michael Bloomberg to run this year as an independent. He is likely engaging in some wishful thinking.
For the superdelegates to actually abandon Clinton en masse would create one of the most divisive convention spectacles in history. Not only would Clinton loyalists rail against using the supers to overturn the pledged delegate and popular vote winner, they would be maligned as putting a “glass ceiling” over the first woman to earn that distinction on flimsy grounds. As long as Clinton isn’t bottoming out in general election polling—and a new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows her back up to a double-digit lead over Trump nationwide—most superdelegates would be loath to take such a drastic step.
Even if she keeps her supers, however, Hillary would suffer a lasting wound from a loss in the biggest primary state. Consider the fate of some her predecessors who left California with an aching in their heart. On the last day of the 1980 primary, Sen. Ted Kennedy nearly doubled the number of states he won, taking five of the final eight from the incumbent president including the big Golden State prize. And in 1984, Gary Hart closed strong, taking California and three others, leaving the delegate leader Walter Mondale only New Jersey and West Virginia (and Hart might have won New Jersey if he hadn’t joked that campaigning in New Jersey entailed holding “samples from a toxic waste dump.”)
Carter previously lost California in his first presidential bid in 1976, but intra-party opposition was divided among several also-rans, allowing him to orchestrate a unified convention with minimal difficulty. But 1980 was a different story. Kennedy’s big finish gave him a rationale to contest the nomination. His forces disregarded Carter’s 747 delegate lead and majority share, and argued on the floor of the convention for a rule change that would unbind all the delegates from their pledges.
Kennedy lost that critical rules fight on the first day of the convention, prompting him to formally withdraw and deliver his famous “The Dream Will Never Die” address. But in that speech, he previewed the platform fight to come: “Let us pledge that there will be jobs for all who are out of work; and we will not compromise on the issues of jobs.”
This was not liberal boilerplate. It struck at the heart of Carter’s economic plan. Kennedy demanded a big public works jobs program and a federal commitment to full employment, while Carter insisted that solving runaway inflation was the highest priority and that would be worsened by Kennedy’s $12 billion proposal.
Kennedy’s speech captivated the convention delegates, gaining him leverage in the hall. In a 17-hour debate spanning two days of the convention, Kennedy won his priorities in voice votes. And he further squeezed Carter with a rule forcing the nominee to issue a public statement supporting the platform generally while articulating any reservations. (Carter still suggests Kennedy contributed to his re-election campaign defeat.)
In 1984, it was Gary Hart’s turn to make a final stand after winning California. The circumstances were strikingly similar to today’s Democratic primary. He was well behind in the pledged delegate count, but the spread was magnified by former Vice-President Walter Mondale’s near-sweep of the superdelegates. Hart refused to concede, noting he polled better against President Ronald Reagan.
Hart hoped to convince third-place finisher Rev. Jesse Jackson to endorse him and hand over his delegates. But Jackson wanted to woo Mondale’s nonwhite delegates for himself and make a show of strength on the floor. Neither got anywhere at the convention, yet they held out until the formal roll call vote by the delegates was completed.
Both also tried to put their stamp on the platform. Hart, who had accused Mondale of being too hawkish in the campaign, pushed a “peace plank” on the convention floor that listed conditions where military interventions would not be permissible. Mondale thought the proposal deprived president flexibility, but worked with Hart on the language and eventually dropped his opposition. (Most of Jackson’s platform proposals were rejected on the floor.) The maneuvers by Hart and Jackson were less disruptive than what Kennedy wrought four years prior.
But surely Mondale would have preferred to spend less time keeping his delegates in line and putting out fires, and more time focused on the general election.
Clinton would too, which is why she is criss-crossing California right now instead of writing off the state as a meaningless footnote to a closed book of a primary race. Meanwhile Sanders, who likely knows deep down he is not going to be the nominee, argues that the Democratic Party should welcome a “messy” convention because “a serious debate about serious issues is good for democracy” and would “increase voter turnout,” presumably by making his independent-minded voters feel like the Democratic Party is their home.
Democrats with memories of their 1980 convention, not to the mention the 1972 and 1968 conventions, would be hard pressed to agree. But if Sanders wins the June 7 prize, and members of the Democratic establishment don’t want an ugly convention, they are going to have give Sanders a lot of what he asks for.