In 1964, it was California that tipped the Republican presidential nomination into the hands of iconoclastic conservative Barry Goldwater. In 1972, the Golden State secured the Democratic nomination for Senator George McGovern, a staunch critic of the Vietnam War. Both went on to lose in landslide general elections – but hey, you can’t blame California for that.
For the past several decades, however, the most populous state in the union – also home to its largest haul of electoral delegates – has carried surprisingly little weight when it comes to presidential primaries. The California contest tends to be held at the tail end of primary season, by which time most presumptive nominees are already picking out their convention suits.
Earlier this year, it seemed as if California’s 7 June vote might turn into a doomed final stand for the GOP’s #NeverTrump faction. But with his party rivals all humiliated, assimilated or marginalised, Donald Trump’s only remaining opposition in California is on the streets, where protesters have come out in large numbers to disrupt his rallies, sometimes violently.
Yet the state has become unexpectedly significant for Democrats, even if that significance is more symbolic than mathematic. This week, the party’s nearly nominee, Hillary Clinton, launched a precision attack on Mr Trump, describing his foreign policy platform – if he could be said to have such a thing – as little more than “bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies.”
Already mid-pivot to the general election, Ms Clinton delivered the most effective speech of her campaign on a stage in San Diego arrayed with a total of 19 US flags, a not-so-subliminally presidential backdrop. But as she begins prosecuting the case against Mr Trump, there remains another major obstacle between Ms Clinton and the Oval Office: Bernie Sanders.
Now just a few dozen delegates shy of the necessary 2,383 (including the party’s controversial super-delegates), Ms Clinton is expected to clinch the Democratic nomination early on Tuesday evening with a comfortable victory in New Jersey, where she leads the polls by more than 15 points. There are also votes that day in delegate-lite Montana, New Mexico and the Dakotas.
But Mr Sanders is hot on her heels in California, where his revolutionary message appears to have resonated more deeply with many voters than Ms Clinton’s familiar pragmatism. A series of recent polls put the two candidates neck and neck in a state that once looked like an easy win for the former Secretary of State.
California’s 546 Democratic delegates are distributed proportionately, meaning that even if Mr Sanders does pull off a marginal victory, it will do little to change the balance of the race. But it would sap the Clinton campaign’s morale and may give the Vermont Senator sufficient motivation to make his case to the party’s convention in Philadelphia in July.
Mr Sanders has promised to back the eventual nominee, but, as he and his supporters never hesitate to point out, that nominee could still technically be Mr Sanders. Yes, Ms Clinton has won more states, more votes and more delegates, but if he were to trounce her in all six states on Tuesday, and then flip several hundred of her super-delegates…? Well, you never know.
Speaking in Los Angeles on Saturday, Mr Sanders suggested he would contest the party’s convention in July, regardless of the results of the remaining primary races. Decrying the nominating system as “totally absurd”, the Vermont Senator vowed: “The Democratic National Convention will be a contested convention.”
The Clinton campaign is rattled by the large number of newly registered independent voters in California, a group that has come out in force for Mr Sanders elsewhere, and which is permitted to vote in the state’s open Democratic primary. California’s total voter registration is now almost 18m, the most ever registered ahead of a primary election.
More than anywhere, the Latino vote is a major factor here. Latinos now make up a larger share of the state’s population than non-Hispanic whites, and in 2008 Ms Clinton rode their support to a primary triumph over Barack Obama. But this year, young Latinos – just like young people of every other demographic – are flocking to Mr Sanders in droves.
California’s Latino bloc is also proving problematic for Mr Trump, whose anti-Mexican race-baiting has inflamed passions in this multicultural border state. “No state in America has suffered worse from open borders than California,” he told supporters at a rally in Anaheim in April. Outside the event, anti-Trump protesters threw rocks and vandalised police vehicles.
On Thursday, protesters again clashed with supporters at a Trump rally in San Jose. The level of animosity the blowhard billionaire inspires here is historic: the same USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll that puts the two Democratic hopefuls in a virtual dead heat in California also shows Ms Clinton beating Mr Trump by more than 25 points at November’s general election, a colossal margin even in such a deep blue state.
The Clinton campaign has pulled out all the stops in California, where the former Secretary of State and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are expected to host 30 events in the five days leading up to Tuesday’s primary. But Mr Sanders has been camped out here for a month, holding large rallies up and down the state, which his campaign estimates will see him speak directly to almost a quarter of a million Californians before 7 June.
“I wonder why Secretary Clinton and her husband Bill are back in California,” he joked to reporters this week, after the Clintons decided to forgo a day’s campaigning in New Jersey to return to the west coast. “I though we had lost it… but I guess Secretary Clinton maybe is looking at some polling that would suggest otherwise.”
This being California, both candidates have been accompanied on the campaign trail by a cohort of celebrity surrogates. On Friday Ms Clinton was joined by actresses including Debra Messing, Elizabeth Banks, and Sally Field at an event in Culver City, where she pledged to help tear down Hollywood’s gender barriers. “We’re going to break the celluloid ceiling,” she said.
In Mr Sanders’s corner are actresses Susan Sarandon, Rosario Dawson and Shailene Woodley, not to mention 90-year-old Dick Van Dyke, all of whom have campaigned on behalf of the Vermont Senator in California. Ms Sarandon, who recently fought a Twitter flame war with Ms Messing over the merits of their respective candidates, said in a Friday interview with The Young Turks that she believed Ms Clinton was “more dangerous” than Donald Trump.
In Silicon Valley, the state’s other great cultural power-base, Mr Sanders may have a hold over Bay Area millennials, but Ms Clinton appears to be more popular among the tech industry’s executive class. People in the internet and electronics sectors have donated significantly more to her campaign than to any other candidate, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Paypal co-founder and tech investor Peter Thiel will act as a pledged delegate for Mr Trump at the Republican convention in Cleveland next month, but that makes him an outlier. At the annual Code Conference in LA this week, Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos slammed Mr Trump for “working to freeze or chill the media that are examining him.”
Apparently the San Diego Union Tribune agreed with Mr Bezos, and on Thursday endorsed not Donald Trump for the GOP nomination, but Ronald Reagan. The Republican-leaning newspaper advised its readers to write in the late President Reagan’s name on their ballots, rather than vote for the crackpot reality TV star, whom it said was “unfit to lead the free world.”
The week’s most important endorsement, however, came from Sacramento. Back in 1992, former California Governor Jerry Brown was a populist insurgent not entirely unlike Mr Sanders, who lost a bruising presidential primary to Bill Clinton. Today Mr Brown is again the Governor of the Golden State, and on Tuesday he published an open letter to fellow Democrats, urging them to fall in behind Ms Clinton. Trump’s candidacy is “dangerous,” he wrote, adding that “this is no time for Democrats to keep fighting each other."
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