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Why California looked close for Bernie Sanders, but wasn’t

Bernie Sanders: 'Our not over'

At energetic election night rally in Santa Monica, Democratic presidential challenger Bernie Sanders vowed to fight on past the California primary on June 7, 2016.
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At energetic election night rally in Santa Monica, Democratic presidential challenger Bernie Sanders vowed to fight on past the California primary on June 7, 2016.

First came denial, Bernie Sanders supporters shouting “Bull----!” at a rally in Santa Monica as CNN reported early signs of his California defeat.

Then bewilderment as Tuesday’s results settled in.

Three separate polls running up to the election had put Hillary Clinton ahead by only 2 percentage points in California. It was a virtual tie, with Sanders steadily gaining ground.

After midnight – after Clinton crushed him – Walter Rhoads stood crestfallen at a Sanders field office in Sacramento amid a dwindling crowd.

“What happened?” the volunteer said.

Supporters of Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaign had expected Clinton to claim victory on Tuesday in the Democratic Party’s nominating contest. But they hoped that by winning California – the nation’s most populous state – Sanders might inspire a mass of superdelegates to shift their support away from the former secretary of state.

But by Wednesday morning, the race had been called with Clinton up by 13 percentage points.

People don’t go vote when the election’s over. People are watching the returns and smoking dope and figuring they might just stay home.

David Townsend, Democratic consultant

One explanation for Sanders’ unexpected drubbing is that The Associated Press, surveying pledged delegates and superdelegates, declared Clinton the nominee on Monday, after public opinion surveys were completed but before polls opened in California.

“People don’t go vote when the election’s over,” said David Townsend, a Democratic political consultant who supported Clinton but is unaffiliated with the campaign.

For Sanders supporters, he said, “People are watching the returns and smoking dope and figuring they might just stay home.”

But the pre-election polls not only failed to predict the magnitude of Clinton’s victory. They also underestimated her advantage among voters who cast their ballots early or by mail – before The Associated Press made its call.

According to a Field Poll last week, of the 23 percent of respondents who had already voted early or by mail, Clinton was up by 9 percentage points.

But as Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, watched early returns stream in on Tuesday night, he saw levels approaching three times that number.

“That was the thing that really surprised me,” he said. “Clinton jumped out to this huge lead.”

In a polling problem known as “differential non-response,” DiCamillo said older people – Clinton’s most favorable demographic – appear to have been more reluctant to say how they voted, understating her support. Another group of older voters, Spanish-speaking Latinos, might also have been underrepresented in the survey, he said.

DiCamillo said he expects Clinton’s margin of victory, now 13 percentage points, to narrow to single digits by the time all ballots are counted.

Still, the margin will be wider than expected, and Clinton was overwhelming Sanders even in some of the most liberal enclaves of the state. She was beating him by double digits in San Francisco and by 8 percentage points in Alameda County, home to Berkeley.

“The polling basically had it all wrong,” said Political Data Inc.’s Paul Mitchell, whose pre-election data suggested a much closer result. “It really did look like there was an enthusiastic Bernie vote that was going to come out and vote, and was (already) out and voting. That just didn’t happen.”

Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who specializes in Latino politics in California, said the seeming inevitability of Clinton’s candidacy was apparent – and drawing attention – long before Clinton was declared the presumptive nominee.

For both Clinton and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, party voters on Tuesday “rallied around the flag,” he said in an email.

Trump was carrying the state with about 75 percent support, a greater proportion than he carried in Montana on Tuesday and slightly less than in New Jersey. The result was comparable to 2012, when Mitt Romney carried just less than 80 percent of the primary vote in California.

It didn’t turn into a wake. But it’s not exactly a happy party anymore, either.

Walter Rhoads, a Sanders supporter in Sacramento

On the Democratic side, Sanders vowed to push on. His supporters were promising a contested Democratic National Convention or taking heart in the belief that his campaign – win or lose – held greater meaning.

“It’s not about this election night,” said Stephen Magnotta, a volunteer in Sacramento.

Leaning against a wall across from him, another volunteer, Greg Williams, nodded.

Sanders, the musician and guitar teacher said, is “the seed of a movement.”

But Rhoads, 62, was taking the loss hard.

A disc jockey had been at the field office playing reggae and the Grateful Dead. They drank Sierra Nevada and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. But by 1 a.m. Wednesday, the music was done.

“It didn’t turn into a wake,” Rhoads said. “But it’s not exactly a happy party anymore, either.”

Sacramento Bee Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman draws Hillary Clinton's big moment as Bernie Sanders continues his fight for the Democratic presidential nomination. Animation by McClatchy's Sohail Al-Jamea.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

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