A visitor from Mars — or even the East Coast — might think the intensity of California’s primary battle means the stakes are YUGE, like deciding whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee opposing Donald Trump.
Not that YUGE. But Tuesday’s results will be important in setting the tone for the seven weeks until the Democratic Convention, as well as at the convention itself.
Clinton will almost certainly clinch the nomination earlier that day by winning the New Jersey primary. The California result will probably either pad her delegate lead modestly or trim it slightly. Whichever happens, she’ll have a bigger margin in popular votes and pledged delegates over Sanders than Barack Obama had over her eight years ago.
And from a historical perspective, the significance of Tuesday’s result is certainly questionable. Since Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 loss to Champ Clark, many ultimate Democratic nominees have lost contested California primaries: Jimmy Carter (twice), Walter Mondale, Barack Obama.
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Sanders has refused to concede his end is near. “I believe that if we do well here in California, we’ll march in with momentum and we’ll march out with the Democratic nomination,” he said at a rally in Santa Monica last week.
Though that’s unlikely, his persistence means a victory in California is the best way, and perhaps the only way, for Clinton to prevent the Vermont senator from damaging Democratic prospects by pressing that claim for another two months.
It would cement her majorities of elected delegates, popular votes and states contested. With no sign that superdelegates are weakening in supporting her, that would effectively end their contest, even if Sanders delays a formal endorsement.
On the other hand, a Sanders victory would doubtless encourage him to persevere, even if he loses any chance of winning a majority of pledged delegates. He suggested Sunday that intervening events, perhaps from the investigation into Clinton’s private email server, could yet convince those superdelegates to abandon her.
The State Department Inspector General’s report criticizing her use of that server “is something that the American people, Democrats and delegates, are going to have that take a hard look at,” Sanders said Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation, adding, “Everybody in America is keeping it in mind, and certainly the superdelegates are.”
Sanders still hopes to win at least half of the states, and California may determine that. But it’s a meaningless statistic, given that many Sanders victories came in lower-turnout caucus states, one factor in Clinton’s overall 3 million vote majority. That quest may explain his failed effort to overturn Kentucky’s slim Clinton victory.
So far, the Vermont senator has won 20 states, plus Democrats abroad, while Clinton has won 24, and Guam, Northern Marianas and American Samoa. Of six states remaining, Clinton is favored in New Jersey and California, while Sanders could easily win Montana, New Mexico and the two Dakotas. Primaries in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Island caucuses round out the schedule.
While Sanders has repeatedly said he will do everything possible to ensure Trump’s defeat, he seemed Sunday to minimize his responsibility for persuading his youthful cadres to back the ultimate nominee.
“If Secretary Clinton is the nominee, it is her job to reach out to millions of people and make the case as to why she is going to defend working families and the middle, provide healthcare for all people, take on Wall Street, deal aggressively with climate change,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
California’s bottom line is simple: A Clinton victory will smooth the path to her inevitable nomination. A defeat will complicate — but not ultimately deter — it, and delay the unity she’ll need to defeat Trump.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News.
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