Not So Fast, Hillary Clinton: California Still Matters

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It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

By Jared Keller

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Hillary Clinton speaks on June 6, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Did Hillary Clinton just become the first female presidential nominee from a major political party? It depends on who you ask.

On Monday morning, the Associated Press and NBC News effectively preempted Tuesday’s California Democratic primary contest between Clinton and an intransigent Senator Bernie Sanders by declaring that the former Secretary of State had secured enough delegates. The two news organizations reached the decision not only through an ongoing tally of delegates secured through primary contests and caucuses over the last several months, but also by gauging the support of unpledged “superdelegates,” that hyper-elite group made up of Democratic party leaders, elected officials, and Democratic National Committee members. Clinton has dominated the superdelegate pool (which makes up 15 percent of the Democratic delegate pool) with 572 votes to Sanders’ 46, and her victory in Puerto Rico’s primary gave her enough votes to breach the 2,383 delegate line needed to mathematically secure the nomination.

The Clinton campaign demurred on the media pronouncement, but the Sanders campaign, which has doggedly criticized the Democratic Party’s bifurcated delegate system as undemocratic, promised that July’s Democratic National Convention would without a doubt be a contested convention. “It is unfortunate that the media, in a rush to judgement, are ignoring the Democratic National Committee’s clear statement that it is wrong to count the votes of superdelegates before they actually vote at the convention this summer,” a Sanders spokesman said in a statement. “Secretary Clinton does not have and will not have the requisite delegates to secure the domination.”

The argument is simple: Clinton’s victory is essentially mathematical speculation dependent on the verbal commitments of superdelegates who by DNC rules remain unpledged (and malleable) until the actual convention in July. With California’s 475 delegates up for grabs between Clinton and Sanders, the Sanders campaign is adamant that it can convince superdelegates to defect based on his projected performance against Donald Trump.

Even if it’s mathematically meaningless, Clinton can’t afford a loss in California going into what’s sure to be a hotly contested convention.

Sanders isn’t wrong to mount this argument: According to NBC News, the Vermont Senator would beat Trump 53 to 40 in the general election; Clinton is projected to win by a comparatively tight 49-to-44 count. On paper, Clinton seems like a riskier bet than Sanders, and the latter isn’t going to concede until he can make his case to those superdelegates in the run-up to the convention in July. Sanders has leveled the argument that the superdelegate regime represents a “rigged” system, an assertion that resonates deeply with his populist economic message and outsider status: “When we talk about a rigged system, it’s important to understand how the Democratic National Convention works.” Ironically, the Clinton campaign had accused the Sanders camp of the similar superdelegate chicanery just a few weeks earlier.

Then again, those superdelegates aren’t going to care much about whatever gussied-up version of his fiery stump speech he opts to peddle in Orange County or wherever. After all, Sanders has spent the majority of the primary season building a narrative of his insurgent campaign as a salve to the malignancy of an increasingly ossified Beltway. But, as the Los Angeles Timesreported in April, those establishment cronies in statehouses and on Capitol Hill have long memories. Take Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s angry proclamation: “You’re trying to woo us now, but we remember when you were trashing us.” (Clinton won the state by a 12 percent margin.)

Sanders’ best strategy, then, might be what it’s been since the beginning: to win. On the eve of the California primary, Clinton narrowly leads Sanders 47.5 to 45.5 according to a RealClearPolitics average of national polls, and Clinton’s premature media coronation only strengthens Sanders’ insurgency narrative in the Golden State. For the mainstream media to tell the largest state in the union that its votes are irrelevant might just give Sanders the pre-primary bump he needs in the next 24 hours.

That’s not an impossibility: Early projections have been a controversial issue since the major news networks started the practice during the 1980 presidential election. An analysis in a 2015 issue of the Yale Law & Policy Review notes that NBC’s decision to award an electoral victory to Ronald Reagan kept potential GOP voters at home three hours before polling places closed. Both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns are desperately trying to ensure that Democratic voters don’t stay home on Tuesday (although the Clinton campaign, the Reagan analog here, is likely a bit more concerned). Then again, whatever: Media outlets called the 2004 Democratic primary back in March of that year with plenty of state contests ahead.

Even if it’s mathematically meaningless, Clinton can’t afford a loss in California going into what’s sure to be a hotly contested convention. Should Sanders manage to eke out a victory in California on Tuesday, the early call could compound Clinton’s unpopularity going into the general election. As I wrote last week, bitter, contested primaries tend to hurt party nominees during the general election, a phenomenon that’s particularly pronounced for establishment Democrats (read: Clinton) and inconsequential for dark horse Republicans (i.e. Donald Trump). With a once-disarrayed GOP now falling into line, the ongoing feud between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns over whether the DNC is stacking the contest for an establishment favorite will only hurt Clinton headed into her showdown with Trump.

Both campaigns are probably tearing their hair out right now over the networks’ early call, but they’d be better off taking a note from America’s greatest political analyst: It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

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