By Tom Gogola
“If he wins tonight, we could go to June.” That was Democratic Party strategist Donna Brazile on CNN the night of Bernie Sanders’ upset in the Michigan primary on March 8.
Defying all expectations—even his own—Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by two points in a race that mainstream go-to pollsters such as Nate Silver said he would lose by 20 points, and perhaps more, just the day before the primary.
Brazile’s comment on CNN was code for, “This might not be resolved until California,” whose primary is on June 7 and where 546 delegates are up for grabs in the Democratic primary. There are three months to go, and numerous states will vote between now and then, but Sanders’ Michigan upset put the tactical and tautological “inevitability” argument about Hillary Clinton into play—something that nobody saw coming, least of all the two-dozen California Democratic superdelegates who have already pledged their support, and their vote, to Clinton.
So could Sanders actually win in California on his way to an upset win over Clinton for the nomination? And could Sanders’ deep support in the Bay Area help push him over the top? A recent breakdown of Federal Election Commission figures shows that his supporters in Oakland and San Francisco have sent almost $900,000 to Sanders’ small-bucks-only campaign. The most recent polls in California have him in the neighborhood of 10 points down from Clinton, but if the wildly errant polling data in the lead-up to Michigan is any indication, 10 points is well within the margin of statistical error in an election cycle where every prediction has been subject to debate, and is sometimes just flat wrong.
“Of course Bernie can win California,” says Bill Curry, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton and two-time candidate for governor in Connecticut. Curry, now a political analyst and columnist, notes that polling data on Clinton and Sanders shows that primary voters are with Bernie on the issues—universal healthcare, support for a living wage, an end to pay-to-play politics—and he’s got her beat by a long shot on the favorability factor. “But she has convinced them that she has a better chance of winning.”
Yet all bets are off after the Michigan upset, and that includes the Golden State. “California coming in at the end of the line,” says Curry, “it wasn’t expected to be important six months ago on the Democratic side.”
The question is whether Sanders’ “political revolution” can find its reflection in the delegate count in time for the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this July.
One takeaway from Michigan is that, while Donald Trump may claim to speak for the Nixonian bloc of “silent majority” voters, not only are his supporters not especially silent, they’re not the majority, either—the violent minority is more like it. The voters who pushed Sanders over the top in Michigan may represent an actual silent majority that doesn’t get picked up in polling, Curry says, and is made up of disfranchised citizens who have ditched politics altogether. “The poor, white working class has fled the civic life of the nation,” Curry says.
It’s those voters who are emerging as a possible key to the race, as the “inevitability” argument gets chipped away by Sanders and his slow-roll delegate count (and by Clinton’s gaffes, such as her unspeakably moronic comments about AIDS and the Reagans last week). At last count, Clinton had 1,231 delegates to Sanders’ 576. The winning candidate will need to amass 2,383 delegates.
The push for Sanders is already on in California, even if the vote is three months away. There are numerous events scheduled by supporters in coming days and weeks, lots of phone-banking and door-knocking all over Northern California. This Thursday, March 17, the Western Gate [R]evolutionary Teahouse in far-flung Lagunitas is hosting a pro-Bernie phone-and-computer night of outreach to potential supporters.
One challenge for Sanders supporters and activists in California is to try to get already committed superdelegates to reconsider their support for presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton—not an easy task, given the tendency of liberal voters to view this election through a lens of fear, if not outright terror, at the prospects of any GOP candidate making it to the White House. In that rubric, Clinton is viewed as a “safe” bet for president.
There are about four-dozen superdelegates in California, comprising elected officials at the national level and members of the Democratic National Committee. To date, the superdelegates are basically split down the middle: Half have supported Clinton, while half remain uncommitted. None have thrown down for Sanders—at least not yet.
“We are out in front on this,” says Norman Solomon, the West Marin author, former congressional candidate and longtime critic of the pernicious and corrupting influence of corporate money in politics. Bay Area elected leaders, he says, need to be coaxed away from their predictable fealty to Democratic Party establishment expectations, especially now that Clinton’s nomination is emerging as something less than a foregone conclusion.
“We know from experience … that the heads of the Sonoma and Marin Central Democratic Committee are going to go with the national party hierarchy,” Solomon says, as he points his waggishly progressive finger in the direction of two-term U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman.
Last year, I asked Huffman who he was supporting in the Democratic primary, and the popular, progressive-minded congressman said he’d be supporting Clinton. She was going to be the nominee, Huffman reasoned, even as he praised Sanders for bringing a raft of welcome populist ideas into the campaign. Solomon, who ran against Huffman in 2012, is suggesting that the congressman reconsider his support for Clinton, especially given that the “inevitability” argument has been taken down a peg or two in Sanders’ big-state win in Michigan.
“He should withdraw his premature endorsement and pledge for Hillary Clinton at the convention and see how we vote in the June primary,” Solomon says.
Huffman says that he’s been talking about the superdelegate issue since before Solomon laid down his challenge, and does not think that those voters are going to decide who the nominee is, “nor should they.” Huffman fully expects that Clinton will arrive in Philadelphia with the nomination sewn up, but, speaking hypothetically, he notes that “if for some reason that is not the case, all gets considered. I’m not going to go against the voters … We’ll see how this plays out.”
According to our friends at Wikipedia, the two-dozen uncommitted superdelegates in California include Gov. Jerry Brown and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi’s daughter, Christine Paule Pelosi, a political strategist and DNC member, has pledged her vote to Clinton, as have U.S. senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. As for Brown, spokesman Evan Westrup says via email that the governor has yet to make a decision about whom he will endorse for president.
That’s not a problem for North Bay Sanders supporters Anna Givens and Alice Chan. They are lead organizers in the Coalition for Grassroots Progress, founded during Solomon’s run for congress in 2012. Last fall, the organization embarked on a campaign where volunteers were asked to knock on 100 doors in their neighborhoods to ascertain and encourage support for Sanders’ presidential run. The organization is poised to kick off another 100-door-knock campaign at the end of March, which may give some indication about whether or not there is a growing base of support for Sanders—whether people are ready to vote with their hopes for a political revolution over their fears of a Trump planet.
“I expect that there will be a difference between the fall and now,” says Givens, who lives in Santa Rosa. “There’s a huge amount of organized enthusiasm for Sanders in this area.” Chan, a Sebastopol resident, says she is hopeful that Sanders can turn the corner with a big push from Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties, where enthusiasm for Sanders runs high. “People pay more attention to what their neighbors say to them than they do to glossy fliers in the mailbox,” says Chan of the group’s outreach. “Neighbor-to-neighbor is the best way to change people’s minds.”
But journalist and political campaign veteran Al Giordano isn’t so sure Sanders can take the Golden State. There are too many uncertainties, and too much time before the primary to make a call. Giordano produces an election-season newsletter for subscribers, and so far in 2016 he has accurately projected the winner in 19 of 20 Democratic primaries and caucuses.
“California is almost three months away, so it’s a bit early to tell,” Giordano says. “A big factor will be if Trump has it sewn up before then, in which case independent voters will take Democratic ballots for Bernie instead. It’s also highly possible that Clinton will already have 50-percent-plus of the delegates, so it will be irrelevant, and a Sanders victory would be much like Clinton’s California one eight years ago—symbolic but meaningless. Unless he gets the Trump-Kasich independents voting for him, it’s a tough road because Latinos and black voters are irreversibly against [Sanders].”
There’s another California voting bloc out there that might be smoldering in the wings for Sanders—call it the sativa majority: The pro-legalization brigades of recreational cannabis users who will no doubt come out in favor of this year’s legalization initiative in California. Sanders supports legalization of cannabis; Clinton, like her husband before her, is not inhaling the legalization fumes. Solomon agrees that Sanders’ support for cannabis legalization could push more Californians his way, given that cannabis is just another issue where “Bernie has been way ahead of the progressive curve.”
It’s all very intriguing, but to remain competitive until the California vote, says Curry, Sanders will have to put in a good showing in delegate-rich Florida and Ohio. Voters in those states, and in Missouri, North Carolina and Illinois, were casting ballots as this paper was put to bed on Tuesday. The polls in Ohio had tightened in Sanders’ favor in the lead-up to primary day.
“He doesn’t have to win, but he does have to make them somewhat close,” Curry says. “If he wins either of those, then no states are out of reach. It will help him enormously to pull out another early victory, another surprise.”