Presidential Campaign

California dreamin’ for Clinton and Sanders

Getty Images

When I think about the California Democratic primary, one overwhelming tragic image comes to mind. The year was 1968: The Vietnam War was raging, and hundreds of American boys were dying every week. Two candidates with huge personal followings were in fierce competition in the Golden State.

{mosads}Sen. Eugene McCarthy (Minn.) had taken on President Lyndon Johnson early in the year and staked his candidacy and career on ending the war in Southeast Asia. McCarthy’s candidacy forced LBJ to not seek a second term. In the spring of 1968, Sen. Robert Kennedy (N.Y.) jumped into the race. He, too, proclaimed himself as the “peace” candidate. The California primary was the ultimate showdown between these two candidates. 

Kennedy’s charisma bested the laid-back cerebral poet with the sardonic wit. I’ll never forget watching Kennedy on TV, declaring victory at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The last words of his victory speech were “Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there,” referring to the site of the ’68 convention. Moments later, he was shot. He died a 26 hours later.

Hubert Humphrey, a decent man with a great liberal philosophy, did not compete in California. In fact, he never entered one primary. He was LBJ’s vice president and ultimately became the Democratic nominee. His attachment to the unpopular president doomed his candidacy.

In 1972, the California Democratic primary was a contest between George McGovern (S.D.) and Humphrey. McGovern, senator from the small-population state of South Dakota, was polling at 1 or 2 percent when he announced his candidacy. He was considered to be too far to the left and a one-issue candidate, focusing on immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. Part of his resume was working for Henry Wallace in 1948, a former Democratic vice president who ran as the Progressive Party nominee. (Some called Wallace a socialist.) [McGovern out-organized the perceived front-runner, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine.]

McGovern’s issue attracted the young and mobilized the anti-war vote in the party. Humphrey, after losing the election to Richard Nixon in ’68, went back to Minnesota and got himself elected (again) to the U.S. Senate, and then began a run for president. In 1972, it was a winner-take-all primary. McGovern narrowly beat Humphrey in California and went on to win the nomination, but he got clobbered in the general election, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

Today in 2016, California is Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (Vt.) last attempt to stop former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner. Tad Devine, Sanders’s savvy campaign strategist, is candid about his chances in this mega-state of 37 million people: “We think we have a very narrow path to get there. And California is the most important piece of the puzzle.”

This time, the primary is not winner-take-all (the Democrats got rid of that after the ’72 primaries). Each candidate will get a proportional share of their popular vote.

In 2008, there was a heated contest between then-Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (N.Y.). The turnout was massive; 5 million voted, and Clinton won 51 percent to 43 percent, carrying 42 of the 53 congressional districts. She carried Los Angeles County with 55 percent of the vote and did particularly well with the Asian-American community (71 percent to 25 percent). She also did very well with Jewish voters.

Sanders needs a win in California to bring a last gasp of momentum and success to his candidacy. He feels that if he can beat Clinton in California, the superdelegates pledged to her (now standing at 543, to Sanders’s 45) — might pause or, better yet, switch allegiance to him. In the general election, California’s 55 electoral votes are firmly Democratic. Sanders hopes by upsetting Clinton in this bluest of blue states, that would put everything on hold and give him the opportunity at the convention in Philadelphia to stop Clinton’s nomination.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has endorsed Clinton, but the endorsement was more of a “stop Trump” statement. Brown went out of his way to laud Sanders with these words: “He has driven home the message that the top 1 percent has unfairly captured too much of America’s wealth, leaving the majority of people far behind.”

Sanders is banking on this very sentiment to propel him to victory.

An amazing 1.5 million people have newly registered to vote since January of this year. Sanders believes a great number did so that they can vote for him. But Clinton has canceled events in New Jersey to return to California and make sure there are no surprises.

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.

Tags 2016 California primary 2016 Democratic primary 2016 presidential campaign Barack Obama Bernie Sanders California Hillary Clinton
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video