clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

3 winners and 2 losers of the California and New Jersey primaries

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

It's over. It's really, finally over. More than a year after candidates first started jumping into the race, and five months after voting began, the presidential primary season has concluded with six races in California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

With Donald Trump having sewn up the GOP nomination in early May, only the Democratic side really mattered on Tuesday. While Hillary Clinton entered the day with a prohibitive lead in pledged delegates, and enough delegates to secure the nomination once superdelegates are in the mix, Bernie Sanders was not ready to concede, and the huge size of California meant that it was at least metaphysically possible he could win big enough landslides to win the popular vote and pledged delegate count.

Now that the results are in, here's who leaves the last Super Tuesday of 2016 better than they started, and who took a hit.

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton Attends Get Out The Vote Rally In Los Angeles David McNew/Getty Images

Might as well start with the obvious. Having won California and New Jersey, plus New Mexico and South Dakota for good measure, Hillary Clinton is now the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party and has, conservatively, a 50-50 chance of becoming president next year.

Setting aside your personal feelings about Clinton and the primary, it's worth meditating for a second on what a historic event this is. No major party has ever nominated a woman for president before. The best previous general election performance for a woman was the Green Party's Jill Stein in 2012, who finished in fourth place with 469,627 votes and 0.36 percent. Before that there was psychotherapist Lenora Fulani, who won fourth place and 0.24 percent of the vote in 1988 through the cultlike, anti-Semitic New Alliance Party.

That's been the record of women in general elections in the US, ever since Victoria Woodhull became the first woman nominee of any party in 1872 — nearly 50 years before suffrage, a time when her candidacy was considered so frivolous that election officials didn't even count her votes.

There have been credible runs by women for major party nominations before, but surprisingly few. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) got more than 200,000 votes in 1964 before losing to Barry Goldwater. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) got more than 400,000 in 1972; Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI) got more than 8,000. Former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole dropped out in 2000 before any vote had been cast. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) dropped out after only one primary in 2004, and even she got more votes than Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) or Carly Fiorina in 2012 and 2016 respectively.

In that context, Clinton's two runs stick out dramatically. Going into Tuesday's races, she had received more than 13 million votes this cycle. In 2008 she got 16.6 million votes, excluding ones cast in the renegade Michigan and Florida primaries. She has outperformed every other female contender in history by two orders of magnitude. Even if she loses in November, she will remain, by far, the most successful woman politician in the history of the United States.

Just as it was worth recognizing the historic nature of Barack Obama's nomination in 2008, we should all take a moment to let the gravity of Clinton's nomination sink in. She has broken a 228-year streak of male domination of presidential politics. That's a big fucking deal.

Winner: Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Campaigns In SF Bay Area One Day Before California Primary Scott Olson/Getty Images

Yeah, I know, but bear with me a second.

Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination tonight. It's true that superdelegates could hypothetically abandon their pre-announced allegiances to Clinton and opt to override the will of the people and pick Sanders, but the odds are vanishingly small.

But then again, Sanders's was never a candidacy designed to win. It was a candidacy designed to act as a show of force, to emphasize that there is a large faction of Democrats outraged about income inequality, about Wall Street's lack of prosecution after the crash, and about money in politics, and to force Democratic leaders to reckon with that group.

By that standard, Sanders succeeded wildly.

When he first announced his candidacy on April 30, 2015, commentary mostly focused on his appearance (Jon Stewart declared he "doesn't own a comb") and his inevitable doom (Stewart: "She is going to crush him"):

Vox's Jeff Stein has compiled a few representative predictions from that period. The New York Times's Nate Cohn wrote, "Hillary Rodham Clinton is poised to win the Democratic nomination without a serious contest." Charles Krauthammer declared, "Kim Kardashian has a better chance of being president than Bernie Sanders." And, well, Vox's Dylan Matthews wrote that Sanders had "nowhere near the establishment support or the backing in [non-New Hampshire] crucial early states necessary to actually have a shot at winning the nomination."

We were wrong. Sanders didn't win the nomination, but he forced a close race and put up a serious challenge to Clinton. Just look at how national polling has shifted since early 2015:

On May 4 last year, right after Sanders announced, he boasted a mere 9.4 percent of the vote to Clinton's 61.3 percent, per the HuffPost Pollster average. He ends the race with four times that support, having cut Clinton's share by double digits. That's a gigantic accomplishment.

And it's one that's resulted in real policy concessions from Clinton. As Stein notes, the two most concrete examples were the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she championed as secretary of state before opposing in October, and the $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Her reversal on the latter happened in real time, before a debate audience. In April, under questioning from CNN's Wolf Blitzer, she confirmed that she'd sign a national $15-an-hour minimum wage, even though she'd been touting a $12 minimum all campaign. "Of course, if we have a Democratic Congress, we will go to $15," she declared. It's impossible to imagining a reversal that big and sudden happening without pressure from Sanders.

Sanders is also helping shape a younger generation of Democrats, pushing them to the left and leading them to take economic inequality more seriously. John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard's Institute of Politics, told the Washington Post that voters 18 to 29 were moving left under Sander's influence: "He's not moving a party to the left. He's moving a generation to the left. Whether [...] he's winning or losing, it's really that he's impacting the way in which a generation — the largest generation in the history of America — thinks about politics."

That's only the beginning of his campaign's influence. Sanders's small-dollar donation strategy proved it's possible to run a viable national campaign without large-scale bundling from wealthy individuals in elite industries. That's huge, and could permanently change the way Democratic campaign fundraising is conducted. His success has inspired a number of down-ballot insurgents who could push the legislative Democratic Party leftward in an enduring way.

Sanders won't be living in the White House next year. But whoever is will have to reckon with the Democratic Party he helped create, one that is more populist, more left-leaning, and more skeptical of business than it was only a year ago. That's what real change looks like.

Winner: The Democratic establishment

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Consummate establishmentarian Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL).
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Democratic elites haven't exactly been happy about the rise of Sanders. He's supporting primary challengers to prominent figures like DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. He's made it harder to solicit donations from Wall Street. He has an organized following that could be mobilized to make Hillary Clinton's life difficult if elected, by blocking appointments of figures like Larry Summers or trying to kill deals Clinton cuts with Republicans.

But what they would have hated most of all is a fight that ended ambiguously, with Clinton not officially clinching the nomination even after all the votes are counted, or with Sanders even ahead a bit. Every day the primary contest kept going was a day that couldn't be spent attacking Donald Trump, where Barack Obama could not endorse Clinton, where Clinton could not pivot her messaging toward the center for the general.

With Clinton clinching the nomination, and with notable Sanders allies like Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) declaring that party unity must "begin today," there will be no more delays. Sanders will likely concede in the next few days. Even if he doesn't, there are no more primaries (save DC, which is tiny) in which Clinton can campaign. There is no trade-off in campaigning between primary states and November swing states. She can safely ignore Sanders and move on to her general election effort.

If Sanders does wrap things up and pivot to supporting Clinton, that's even better for the establishment. It means Obama can endorse her with no risk of alienating a major Democratic voting bloc at all. And it means that down-ballot candidates can start to benefit from Sanders's fundraising prowess, if he chooses to direct his powers that way for the good of the party.

Loser: Donald Trump

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In San Jose, California Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

If you dig into the guts of the most recent Quinnipiac national poll, which overall finds Clinton beating Trump 45 to 41 percent, you'll find that only about 75 percent of Sanders's primary supporters say they'll back Clinton. Eleven percent say they'll support Trump, and 12 percent say they'll vote for someone else or stay home.

That's a portion of the electorate that should be at least partially persuadable by the Clinton campaign, especially if Sanders plays ball, drops out, and endorses quickly. It's not a huge number of people — about a quarter of the two-fifths of Democrats/Democratic-leaning independents supporting the losing candidate — but it nonetheless could prove significant in a race as close as this one is looking to be.

Indeed, as Vox's Andrew Prokop explains, this is one common theory for why recent polls have shown the race tightening: Trump has sewn up his party's nomination, whereas Clinton still hasn't. That means Sanders supporters might be understating their eventual level of support for Clinton, while no equivalent group of Trump-wary Republicans is depressing his numbers. Back in 2008, John McCain got a brief boost while Clinton and Obama were still duking out the Democratic contest, only to fall to earth once Obama sealed up the nomination in early June.

So that's strike one for Trump. Strike two is that Clinton and the entire Democratic establishment — including the increasingly popular incumbent president — will now be freed up to attack him and run an honest to goodness general election campaign, free of Sanders-related distractions.

At the moment, Trump is trailing, but only slightly. But don't be shocked if Sanders's exit leads him to fall still further behind.

Loser: California Republican Senate hopes

Ron Unz in 2014
Defeated California Republican Senate candidate Ron Unz.
Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Here's an embarrassing fact: There will be no Republican US Senate candidate on the November ballot in California.

Ever since Proposition 14 passed in 2010, California has used a nonpartisan blanket primary system, in which every candidate, regardless of party, runs in the same primary and then the top two vote getters (again, regardless of party) duke it out in November.

The system is supposed to counteract the tendency of base voters in each party to pull nominees to the left and right, respectively. If a moderate candidate who'd lose a traditional primary can appeal to enough members of the other party, she can make it through. It's great news for moderates — but not for the party whose members are being poached.

So it was in the 2016 Senate primary. The general election in November will take place between two Democrats: Kamala Harris, the state's attorney general and former head prosecutor for San Francisco who'd be only the second black woman in US Senate history and is considered a rising star within the party; and Loretta Sanchez, a moderate longtime Congress member from Orange County.

Sanchez made exactly the kind of successful appeal to Republican voters that the blanket primary system is supposed to reward. Even before the primary, prominent California Republican strategists were telling Bloomberg Businessweek's Josh Eidelson that they thought no Republican stood a chance, and that Republicans' best shot would be to back Sanchez, who, Eidelson notes, has fought regulations on for-profit colleges and voted to shield gun companies from civil liability.

Fair enough: The three most prominent Republicans in the race (anti-immigration businessman Ron Unz, former state GOP Chair Tom Del Beccaro, and fellow former state GOP Chair Duf Sundheim) raised a combined $900,000, next to Harris's $11 million and Sanchez's $3.6 million. All of their candidacies were duds. Sanchez is a much more viable option.

All the same though, she's definitely a Democrat, and not that moderate of one either. The left-leaning Americans for Democratic Action gives her a score of 75 percent — the average for House Democrats was 77, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz got a 70. And now that Sanchez has made it through the primary, she's the rightmost candidate who can win in California.

Republicans' odds of retaking the Senate seat were never great, even if they put forward a top-tier candidate like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But their failure to even make the top two in an open seat election in the nation's largest state is, nonetheless, kind of humiliating.

Watch: Hillary Clinton's 4-minute case against Trump