Darting across California, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders amplified their criticism of Donald Trump last week, mocking his denial of climate change one day, his immigration proposals and foreign policy the next.
Since becoming the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee last month, Trump has served his rivals as a common foil.
Yet as the Democratic primary tightened in California, it became apparent in recent days that Trump’s ascendance had yet to cure divisions between Clinton and Sanders and their divergent constituencies.
As they drew their campaigns to a close this weekend, Clinton and Sanders remained in separate orbits. Sanders rallied disaffected young supporters across the state, while Clinton renewed her decades-long overtures to Latino voters and the Democratic Party’s older, more established crowd.
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Even if Democratic voters eventually rally around the party’s nominee – as prior elections and most experts suggest – the intensity of the primary underscored how deeply fractured elements of the dominant party in this state remain.
In Santa Ana on Friday, Clinton criticized Sanders for his 2007 opposition to an immigration overhaul bill. Hours later, a U.S. senator from Vermont, speaking in Cloverdale, continued to highlight Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and her Senate vote to authorize the Iraq War.
“I led the effort against that damn war,” he said. “She voted for it.”
As in other states, Clinton has drawn support from older, wealthier Democrats, while failing to match Sanders’ appeal to young, first-time voters and independents, according to a Field Poll released last week. An overwhelming 75 percent of likely Democratic voters under 30 support Sanders. So do pluralities of renters and people whose household incomes fall below $60,000 a year.
“It’s unusually large differences,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll. “And this is not anything related to partisanship. It is all within the party. So the differences are really opening up a fissure in the Democratic Party.”
Leaving a Sanders rally in Northern California last week, Ruy Laredo, a state legislative staffer, said, “This is the most intra-party conflict I’ve seen between the liberal wing and moderate wing of the party.”
Of the prospect of unification, Laredo said, “It’s going to be tough.”
This is the most intra-party conflict I’ve seen between the liberal wing and moderate wing of the party.
Ruy Laredo, a state legislative staffer
The immediate stakes of the election are in little doubt. Clinton is all but certain to secure the Democratic nomination, and it is possible she could declare victory in New Jersey on Tuesday before polls in California close.
“If all goes well,” Clinton said in Culver City on Friday, “I will have the great honor as of Tuesday to be the Democratic nominee for president.”
Yet Clinton was scrambling in California to avoid an embarrassing, momentum-sucking loss to Sanders in the nation’s most populous state. The former secretary of state cut a campaign swing short in New Jersey last week to spend more time here. Like Sanders, she began airing ads on TV.
Clinton had once been expected to carry California easily, as she did in her failed bid for president in 2008. The state’s large size and diversity appeared to favor a candidate who had been operating in the state since her husband, Bill Clinton, first ran for president in 1992.
But Sanders, calling the West Coast “probably the most progressive part of America,” has all but taken up residence in California, drawing thousands of supporters to a dizzying series of rallies across the state.
From Los Angeles and Lancaster to Vallejo and Stockton, he has lectured nonstop about the scourge of income inequality and money in politics, promoting a liberal vision of “social justice, economic justice, racial justice and environmental justice.”
“That vision, shared by tens of millions of young people,” he said in Modesto last week, “is the future of America.”
For California’s most liberal Democrats, Sanders’ candidacy has offered a counterpoint to the more moderate tendencies of the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature and its governor, Jerry Brown. Many of Sanders’ supporters were not alive when Brown, now 78, was governor before, and were not of voting age when he returned to office in 2011.
“These people are going to get older, and ... if things don’t change pretty dramatically, I think you’re going to see much more disaffection from the Democratic Party,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United and California Nurses Association, which is campaigning for Sanders.
She called Sanders “a moment in the movement” for more liberal causes.
I really believe that 90 percent of Bernie Sanders supporters do not want to see Donald Trump elected, and they will understand ... The party is pretty good about rallying around the standard-bearer.
Gray Davis, former California governor
The durability of tension now flaring in the primary is unclear. Clinton and Barack Obama supporters feuded in 2008, but sore feelings eased after the primary.
Former Gov. Gray Davis, a Clinton supporter, recalled the decades-old rise of the liberal California Democratic Council in California, saying ideological divisions within the Democratic Party have “been with us as long as I can recall.”
“Assuming the California primary goes the way I expect it will, with Hillary winning a spirited, contested and relatively close race,” Davis said, “there will be a period where some of the Sanders supporters go through a period of mourning.”
After that, Davis said, “I really believe that 90 percent of Bernie Sanders supporters do not want to see Donald Trump elected, and they will understand ... The party is pretty good about rallying around the standard-bearer.”
Melinda Jackson, a political science professor at San Jose State University, said young voters Sanders has drawn into the political process this year could benefit the Democratic Party, whose registration has ticked up in recent months.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said Friday that Democrats had added almost 492,000 registrants since April, driving the party’s share of the electorate up to just less than 45 percent statewide.
Yet many Sanders supporters, while liberal leaning, are not Democrats, but independent voters.
“People who are attracted to the party based on (Sanders’) kind of message ... could easily become disillusioned and leave just as easily as they came, right?” said Jackson, who specializes in political psychology. “I think that while there’s a lot of potential to bring in fresh, committed progressive voters into the Democratic Party, it’s not a done deal yet.”
She said, “I think a lot is going to depend on how this election plays out – whether those voters feel connected to the party.”
Last week, Brown endorsed Clinton after feuding bitterly with Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential race and for much of the 1990s.
“This is no time for Democrats to keep fighting each other,” he said in an open letter to Democrats and independent voters. “The general election has already begun.”
Ben Tulchin, Sanders’ pollster, said that following the election, regardless of the outcome, Democrats “are going to be aligned in their interests ... I think Donald Trump will help unify the party, and help us get past this primary.”
But in the waning days of the contest, the divisions appeared to persist. Sanders’ criticism of Clinton’s Iraq War vote continued a day after Clinton issued her blistering critique of Trump in a speech on national security.
He told reporters Saturday that the nominating convention in July will be contested.
Before a Sanders speech at UC Davis last week, Dillan Horton, president of a student group supporting Clinton, criticized Sanders in a letter for “relying on a message designed to divide Democrats rather than unify America.”
Outnumbered on campus by young Sanders supporters, Horton said he has wondered what will become of them after the primary.
“These people are going to have to vote for something or someone after this election,” he said. “This is a generation or cohort of voters that we’re going to see for the next few decades, and they’re going to have a different view about some things.”
At the broadest level, Horton said, the supporters of Sanders and Clinton hold similar, left-of-center views.
But in the short term, he said, “I think we have to work at this coming together. I think we have to work at extending a hand out.”