A month ago, it seemed that California’s voters might play an unaccustomed role in choosing a Republican presidential candidate.
GOP contenders showed up at a tumultuous state party convention during the last weekend of April and delegates basked in their attention.
Within a few days, however, Republicans’ hopes of relevancy were dashed as Donald Trump sewed up the nomination and his rivals exited.
That, it appeared, was that. California’s June primary would once again be a non-factor.
But then something else happened. Hillary Clinton’s seemingly smooth path to the Democratic nomination suddenly developed potholes as rival Bernie Sanders not only refused to drop out but rang up enough primary wins to tarnish the glow of inevitability that had enveloped Clinton.
Clinton, moreover, was hammered by a State Department inspector general’s report that she had violated policy by using a private email account for official business as secretary of state. More important from a political standpoint, the report contradicted almost every major statement she had made on the email issue, thus undermining her already shaky credibility.
Suddenly, therefore, California’s June 7 primary became an important, and perhaps decisive, milestone in this strange presidential campaign, with Clinton and Sanders locked in a too-close-to-call duel.
Last week, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found that Clinton held an almost meaningless 46 percent to 44 percent lead over Sanders among likely Democratic and independent voters.
On Wednesday, an NBC/WSJ/Marist poll also gave Clinton a two-point lead and the Field Poll reported a very similar 45 percent to 43 percent split. It was a sharp departure from the 11-point lead that Clinton enjoyed in a January Field Poll and her 6-point lead in early April.
It explains why Sanders and Clinton have been campaigning almost nonstop in California in recent days and why she has been unable to complete a tactical pivot to attacking Trump.
It also underscores the endorsement that Clinton received this week from popular Gov. Jerry Brown. Were she to win California by just a point or two, she’d owe a big debt to Brown.
Clinton is still favored to ultimately be nominated – unless another ethical sinkhole emerges, such as an unfavorable outcome of the FBI’s email investigation or another negative revelation about the Clinton family foundation. However, losing in California would feed the beliefs of Sanders supporters that she would be denied the nomination. In whose favor is very unclear. Vice President Joe Biden perhaps?
The closeness of the race in the nation’s most diverse and populous state has revealed a very deep schism between California’s Democratic leaders, including Brown, who have lined up almost unanimously behind Clinton, and the party’s very liberal activist wing, which likes Sanders’ socialism-light philosophy, such as universal health care, and his populist railing against Wall Street.
The Sandernistas are, like Trump’s most ardent followers, less interested in electability than in sending a message of discontent with the status quo.