Sanders seizes momentum heading into California

Sanders seizes momentum heading into California
© Getty Images

Bernie SandersBernie SandersFunding confusion complicates Meals on Wheels budget fight The Hill's 12:30 Report Five takeaways from the Montana special election MORE has seized momentum in California ahead of Tuesday’s primary there and is in position to put an exclamation point on his insurgent campaign with an upset victory over Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton returns to election night convention hall to talk about her new book Biden jabs at Trump in Cornell commencement speech Hollywood's war on Trump is part of liberal America's 'resistance' MORE in the nation’s largest liberal state.

As recently as late May, Clinton held a 9.5 point lead over Sanders in the RealClearPolitics average.

ADVERTISEMENT
Now, her lead in the RCP average has been cut in half, with two recent polls showing Sanders within 2 points. One survey released Friday found Sanders pulling ahead by a point.

Sanders is relishing every minute of it, taking selfies with fans at a Golden State Warriors playoff game and challenging Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: Trump returns to challenges at home Among 'good people' he met on trip, Trump names 'Justin from Canada' White House is 'not going to comment on Jared’ Kushner MORE to a cross-party primary debate on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” 

"We have the establishment very nervous and that is a good thing," Sanders declared at a rally lateThursday at the University of California-Davis, which reportedly drew about 9,000 people.

It’s extremely unlikely that Sanders could catch Clinton in unpledged delegates, even with a runaway victory in California, where 475 delegates will be awarded proportionally. If somehow he does, Clinton’s lead in superdelegates looks insurmountable and is all but guaranteed to deliver her nomination.

In fact, it’s possible that Clinton could reach the number of delegates she needs to win the nomination outright – aided by her advantage with superdelegates - before polls even close on the West Coast on Tuesday.

But Republicans would be gleeful over a Clinton loss and would use it to paint her as a weak and deeply flawed general election candidate.

And Democrats say that a Sanders victory in California could be all the justification he and his supporters need to continue the nominating battle through the convention in July, thereby delaying Democrats’ hopes of unifying the party after a divisive primary season.

“If Bernie wins in California, it basically guarantees a long, hot and unpleasant summer for Hillary,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “He’ll be inclined to make her life as miserable as possible between now and the convention.”

Sanders has camped out in California since the May 17 primaries, leaving the state only once to campaign in New Mexico.

Perhaps sensing the importance of finishing on a high note and stamping out Sanders once and for all, the Clinton campaign has lavished the state with time and resources in recent weeks.

Clinton bailed on a planned swing through New Jersey, one of four other states that will also hold primaries on Tuesday, deciding instead to spend the last few days before Tuesday's primaries in California. She made headlines this week with a speech in San Diego in which she knocked presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump over foreign policy.

Clinton is likely to benefit from the support of establishment Democrats in the state, including Gov. Jerry Brown (D), a former political enemy.

And she’s well-positioned to capitalize on the ethnically diverse electorate in the state, although Sanders could neutralize that advantage by drawing the support of independent voters, who can cast ballots in the state’s open primary.

Regardless, Democrats see two paths forward after Tuesday.

If Clinton wins in California, they fully expect the Democratic Party and the media to treat Sanders as an afterthought going forward. 

The pressure on Sanders to drop out if he suffers a loss in California would build. Clinton ended her campaign against then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaObama visits Prince Harry at Kensington Palace White House to share info on ethics waivers White House considering vetting Trump’s tweets: report MORE on June 7 in 2008, which will be eight years ago to the day. That was three days after she and Obama split several primaries and he clinched the nomination with the help of superdelegates.

But a Sanders win – even if it’s a narrow victory and Clinton has sewn up the nomination – will leave Democrats fearing that he’ll take his crusade all the way to the convention.

“Folks are forgetting that he is not really a Democrat in his heart of hearts, and that there is no reasonable scenario to expect that he would ever conform to party norms once the nomination is actually decided,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga.

Sanders could read the victory in California as justification to continue his quest to flip superdelegates who have already pledged their support to Clinton.

Sanders and his supporters could feel emboldened to push through a more progressive party platform, potentially putting Clinton in some tough spots on issues like trade and financial reform.

The Sanders campaign could also continue to cause headaches for the party ahead of the convention, as they’ve done in demanding two high-profile Clinton supporters, former Sen. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, be removed from a rules making committee.

And Sanders supporters could also use a California victory to justify rules changes that could have an impact on future elections, like secret balloting at the convention, open primaries across-the-board, and eliminating superdelegates.

Some of that will happen regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, and many Democrats are rolling their eyes at the media focus over a contest in California they say is meaningless because Clinton has all but locked up the nomination.

“There is almost nothing hinging on California,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran of Howard Dean’s insurgent campaign in 2004. 

“Over the last 48 hours you’ve seen a majority of the Democratic Party turn its focus to Donald Trump and stopping him,” Trippi added. “If Sanders continues on past California it will be met with more and more shrugging and he risks damaging his own cause.”

Democratic strategist Steve McMahon said the party will have plenty of time to coalesce around Clinton regardless of how or when Sanders decides to exit.

“Would Clinton rather put an exclamation point on what’s obvious – that she’ll be the party’s nominee? Absolutely,” McMahon said. “But I’m sorry, there’s just no drama here outside of that. I fully expect Bernie’s voters will get behind Clinton once she becomes the nominee.”