Three Takeaways From the California Primary

Three Takeaways From the California Primary
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Virtually all the votes have been counted and the dust is still settling after Tuesday’s California primary. Here are three quick takeaways.

Surf Wasn’t Up. Like a stock in the midst of a giddy public offering, expectations for the turnout on the Democratic presidential side shot through the roof.

Unrealistically so.

Some experts used a turnout of 5 million as the baseline (that’s how many voters took part in the 2008 Democratic primary featuring Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama). Others took the stock all the way up to 8 million.

At last glance, turnout for 2016’s Democratic presidential primary will be in the neighborhood of 3.5 million votes – about 1.5 million less than eight years ago, but better than the contests in 2004 and 2000, both of which were closer to 3 million.

Hillary Clinton finished about 700,000 votes shy of what she received in California eight years ago; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders finished about 600,000 votes south of Obama’s total. So much for Feel the Bern excitement or presumptive-nominee giddiness in the Golden State.

The fate of that gigantic wave that was supposed to make land on Tuesday – independents and young voters supposedly poised to turn out in record numbers for Sanders – is a mystery at this hour.

As are the polls that had this race dead wrong.

Going into Tuesday, three polls had Clinton holding a mere two-point advantage over Sanders – i.e., pick-’em. With almost all the votes now counted, she’s ahead by 12.6 percentage points, or about 440,000 votes (with all due respect to the Associated Press, giving the nomination to Hillary on the eve of California’s primary doesn’t account for that kind margin – or the suppressed turnout – given the abundance of voting-by-mail in the Golden State).

By the way, and at the risk of sounding like a braggart, this Hoover Institution Golden State Poll had it at +13 for Clinton a week before the vote.  

The Curious Republican Existence. For California’s GOP, Tuesday night offered a mixed bag of results.

Donald Trump received just over 75 percent in an afterthought of a presidential primary. The significance? That’s four percentage points and about 400,000 votes shy of where Mitt Romney stood at this point four years ago.

The results from California’s Senate primary are a bigger concern for the state’s GOP. As expected, under the Golden State’s single-ballot, top-two primary system, a pair of Democrats advanced to the general election.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris lapped the field with 40 percent of the vote, while Rep. Loretta Sanchez finished second with just 18.5 percent. Why this vexes California Republicans: the top-four GOP finishers combined received a shade over 20 percent (no Republican cracked double digits).

For a party that opposed this reform when it was placed on the ballot as an initiative back in 2010, here are three options:

  1. Run a counter-ballot initiative in November 2018, undoing the law passed six years ago and returning to separate partisan primaries.
  2. Stick with the status quo – losing most every time GOP candidates (Republicans are now a mere 28 percent of the state’s electorate) outnumber Democrats on the single ballot.
  3. Hold a nominating convention, in advance of the primary, in hope of finding a consensus nominee.

One bit of California oddness moving forward to November: Look for Sanchez to start courting GOP voters since her only chance of defeating Harris entails a healthy crossover vote to her advantage. It should make for interesting messaging: trashing Trump one day to appeal to Latino voters; sidling up the Trump’s party the next.

Feeling the Bern – in November? Speaking of the fall election, here’s one more bit of California quirkiness: Bernie Sanders lost the June battle, but he may yet win the November war.

A quick look at Tuesday’s results shows Sanders underperforming in places one might not expect – San Francisco, for example. A city that’s tinkered with socialist ideas for the past four decades rejected the democratic socialist by a dozen points. (Sanders did much better in the vaunted “People’s Republic of Santa Cruz,” carrying that county by 11 points.)

Sanders may have left the California landscape, but his ideas haven’t. The state’s November initiative slate is the stuff of applause lines at Feel the Bern rallies – legalizing recreational marijuana, extending a millionaire tax hike and capping the pay of hospital executives, to name but three.

That’s small consolation for a campaign licking its wounds after what was expected to be a big night in California.

Then again, many a “revolution” hasn’t gotten it right on the first try.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics. He can be reached at

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