Bernie Sanders is quickly closing Hillary Clinton's lead in California, suggesting he could win the biggest prize in the Democratic race on the same day that Clinton officially seals her grip on the nomination.
Clinton led in California by double digits for months, but at least three recent polls have shown Sanders cutting her lead to just 2 points. On Thursday, a demographic model built by political scientist Alan Abramowitz has Clinton up by a similarly narrow 2-point margin.
There's been some public hand-wringing about the symbolic implications of Clinton losing California, and the candidate herself flew into the state earlier this week to campaign ahead of the vote on Tuesday.
A Sanders win in California may indeed prove an awkward and unsatisfying way to end the months-long primary battle. But it's not clear why else it would matter: Clinton has an insurmountable delegate lead, and taking California by a couple of points is not going to change that reality for Sanders one way or another.
Barring historic and unforeseen landslide victories for Sanders in essentially every state remaining, Clinton will come out of Tuesday winning the popular vote total, the pledged delegate total, and the nomination.
How would losing California hurt Clinton?
The narrowing of the California polls has touched off a glut of coverage about the state's primary, with ABC News wondering "What happens if Clinton loses California?" and Fox News speculating that Clinton is "nervous" about the primary.
"It would spark another round of unflattering headlines and plenty of more handwringing by nervous Democrats," writes Slate's Josh Voorhees about a potential Clinton loss in California. "It would also give Sanders extra motivation — and justification — to take his quixotic fight the whole way to the floor of the Democratic National Convention in July, which would prevent the party from unifying for another two months and could even fracture it further."
Some have argued that a win in California would give Sanders not just a symbolic victory but also bargaining power for elevating his position at the convention. And maybe Voorhees is right that winning California could make some Sanders supporters feel emboldened to continue fighting after the vote is over.
Is there even symbolic importance in the California race?
But it's not clear why they'd be right to do so. Clinton is poised to get a big win in New Jersey on Tuesday — why would that victory be less symbolically important than California?
And there's precedent for nominees losing big states. In the 2008 primary, for instance, Clinton won the state though Barack Obama — and it certainly didn't hurt Obama's chances in November. Nobody thinks Donald Trump can beat Clinton in California in the general election.
Throughout the campaign, the press has elevated the importance of close state-by-state contests that ultimately have no bearing on the shape of the race. A good example of this came in the Kentucky primary, in which an essential tie in the vote totals made the candidates' delegate allocations roughly equal.
Ultimately, who "won" the state had no bearing on the delegate count — but the race was called a "nail-biter" and closely watched. California seems poised to follow a similar pattern.
Let's be real: we're all freaking losers. This KY stuff is all about one or two delegates, and the nomination fight is, in reality, over.— Harry Enten (@ForecasterEnten) May 18, 2016
At least Clinton herself seems to think the results from the the state really do matter. She and Bill have scheduled a 30-event dash across the state in the final days of the campaign, according to the LA Times. If nothing else, the LA Times says, winning California will deprive Trump of one line of attack against Clinton.