Tuesday Primaries Will Serve as Fitting Finale for Extraordinary 2016 Primary Season

Clinton finds herself caught in a tight race against Sanders in California, while Trump has been campaigning in the Golden State for a GOP contest victory he believes is assured.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally with supporters in Fresno, California, U.S., May 27, 2016.
Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.com

Voters in six states head to the polls Tuesday, effectively braking a rollercoaster primary season that catapulted Donald Trump to the Republican presidential ticket and is expected to crown Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ nominee.

In the long list of peculiarities in the 2016 race, Clinton finds herself caught in a tight race against Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in liberal California, at the same time that Trump, already the conservatives’ standard-bearer, has been campaigning in the Golden State for a GOP contest victory he believes is assured Tuesday.

Adding to the twists: Blue state New Jersey, governed by failed GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie, who endorsed Trump early, could hand Clinton the delegates she needs to mathematically button up the Democratic nomination hours before the battle with Sanders in California concludes.

The other states holding primaries for both parties are Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota. Democrats also have a caucus in North Dakota Tuesday. (Republicans held their state convention there in April).

The Democrats are expected to proportionally share 694 total pledged delegates June 7. Following Clinton’s victories in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico over the weekend, she is less than 30 delegates shy of the 2,383 needed for the nomination, according to the Associated Press tally. New Jersey has 126 pledged delegates and California has 475 pledged delegates in the spotlight Tuesday.

Polls close in the Garden State at 8 P.M. ET, which means a decisive win for Clinton there could nudge her over the finish line before returns are counted in the West.

“I believe on Tuesday I will have decisively won the popular vote and I will have decisively won the pledged-delegate majority,” Clinton told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday.

“After Tuesday I’m going to do everything I can to reach out to try to unify the Democratic Party, and I expect Sen. Sanders to do the same,” she continued, “and we will come together and be prepared to go to the convention in a unified way, to make our case, to leave the convention to go into the general election to defeat Donald Trump.”

Sanders has been saying for weeks that he will press his bid all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July, even if he cannot mathematically surpass Clinton’s lead in bound and unbound delegates. But he left himself some wiggle room Sunday after acknowledging Clinton’s evident advantage.

“You don’t know what the world is going to look like” at the end of July when Democratic delegates convene, he said.

If he loses, Sanders insisted his opponent would shoulder the responsibility to unify the party.

“If I am not the nominee, it is Secretary Clinton’s job to explain to those people [who voted for me] why she should get their support,” he told CNN Sunday.

Remaining on the Democratic calendar: Washington, D.C.’s June 14 primary, with 20 delegates.

Even if Sanders could pocket all the pledged delegates in play Tuesday, he would still come up short. But he has made California home base for weeks and attracted hundreds of thousands of people to his rallies in the process.
“We stand an excellent chance to win it on Tuesday,” the senator repeated, if turnout is high. Polls show a statistical tie in California against Clinton, whose once-commanding lead has ebbed in the final weeks.

Analysts are watching the Sanders surge in the Golden State with interest. “Everything is heading in the right direction for Sanders,” said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. Sanders was leading Clinton among registered voters in California last week, but she was outpacing the senator among likely voters. Voter registration has skyrocketed over several months among young and minority Californians, and in the Democratic primary, those with no registered political preference can participate in the primary by asking for a Democratic ballot.

In every contest, Sanders has said transitioning his admirers from rally enthusiasts to actual voters was key, and there is no indication that California, with its enormous size and expensive media markets, is any easier when it comes to goosing turnout.

“For Sanders, it is the most sweeping vote-mobilization challenge in modern California political history,” Schnur told RealClearPolitics. “If anyone can pull it off, it’s Bernie Sanders, but he’s never done it before.”

Clinton has some mobilization challenges, too. And while she has dubbed herself a fighter, some Democrats, watching her performance against her Vermont rival and anticipating a scorched-earth showdown against Trump in the fall, have wanted to see the former first lady land some bruising punches.

She thrilled many in her base by blasting Trump as “temperamentally unfit” for the presidency during a San Diego speech Thursday. Clinton has been campaigning vigorously through the state and secured the endorsement of popular Gov. Jerry Brown last week.

To lose or to squeak out a narrow win would be viewed as a scarring humiliation in a state once considered effusively embracing to the Clintons, and by every measure an Electoral College shoo-in for a Democratic nominee in November.

Clinton, restless to dispatch Sanders and move immediately to the general election, would be squeezed on a two-front battlefield if she cannot put her opponent away in a California primary she won by 51.5 percent to Barack Obama’s 43.2 percent in 2008. Trump has taunted her as a weak candidate because of Sanders’ staying power.

A loss in California risks stoking deeper divisions inside the Democratic Party, where some liberals, independents and younger voters lean toward Sanders and his income-inequality agenda. Another Sanders victory at the end of the protracted primary battle would give the senator potent ammunition to press super delegates (who are the elected and establishment VIPs in the party) to switch their allegiances to him in July.

Meanwhile, Trump wants to capture up to 172 delegates in the GOP primary, and held rallies in Fresno, Sacramento, Anaheim, San Jose, and Redding.
Analysts believe he has spent extensive time in the state, knowing he is the Republican victor, because he wants to enlarge his delegate total and remain in the headlines to the finish line.

California also provided Trump opportunities to greet donors. He hosted his first joint fundraiser with the Republican National Committee on May 25 at the home of investor and longtime friend Tom Barrack, who has also founded a super PAC in support of the candidate. The event brought in $6.6 million.

Trump says he has a shot at turning California red, considered by many to be a showman’s boast and a political fantasy. A Republican presidential nominee hasn't won the state since 1988. Among many challenges for Trump in the general election is the Golden State’s increasingly diverse electorate.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Latinos are nearly 40 percent of California’s population, surpassing whites as the state’s largest demographic. And many establishment Republicans fear Trump could motivate minorities to turn out in larger numbers for the Democratic ticket in the fall. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who supports Trump as the nominee, has expressed those concerns. “When Ronald Reagan was elected, 84 percent of the American electorate was white. This November, 70 percent will be,” McConnell told “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “I think it's a big mistake for our party to write off Latino-Americans.”

A University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll released last week showed Clinton leading Trump in a head-to-head matchup, including in conservative and less populated portions of the state. Nearly 40 percent of California Republicans and unaffiliated voters surveyed said they did not believe Trump had the temperament to serve as president, a theme Clinton and other Democrats are trying to reinforce.

If Trump, who owns a home in Beverly Hills, had hoped to gain an edge while campaigning in California, the benefits were uncertain. His presence ignited skirmishes and opposition, but it was unclear if the pushback also invited some sympathy for Trump from like-minded conservatives.

Trump lit a fuse when he told the Wall Street Journal in an interview last week that a federal judge presiding over a fraud lawsuit against Trump University had a conflict of interest tied to what Trump said was the judge’s Mexican heritage. Judge Gonzalo Curiel is an American citizen born in Indiana to immigrant parents.

Trump continued to defend the remarks in interviews over the weekend, arguing that the judge should have dismissed his case when the lead plaintiff withdrew in March, expressing concerns in a court filing about the trial's toll on her well-being. 

“We’re building a wall. He's a Mexican. We're building a wall between here and Mexico,” Trump told CNN’s “State of the Union.” Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” whether a Muslim judge wouldn’t be able to treat Trump fairly because of his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country, the presumptive nominee said, “It’s possible, yes.”

Trump’s inflammatory remarks about immigrants since last year and his effort to disqualify the judge enraged critics, some of whom clashed with Trump supporters outside the candidate’s rally at the San Jose Convention Center last week. The violent scene looped through cable coverage Thursday. His critics waved the Mexican flag and burned Trump-themed “Make America Great Again” hats, along with one American flag. Some of the candidate’s supporters were bloodied in the melee, and at least one was pummeled with raw eggs, according to video reports.

On Friday, Trump tweeted: "Great evening in San Jose other than the thugs. My supporters are far tougher if they want to be, but fortunately they are not hostile.”