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Bernie Sanders Has Already Won California

The results won't change the Democratic contest—but the campaign has changed everything.

David McNew/Getty Images

Does the outcome of next Tuesday’s California primary matter? Conventional wisdom says no; news outlets are already pinpointing the precise time of the evening when Hillary Clinton will clinch the nomination with victories elsewhere—three hours before the polls close in the Golden State.

Naturally, this perturbs Bernie Sanders fans, who see it as one more way the Democratic nomination contest has been rigged from the start. But they should know that the election in California is of critical importance—not to deciding the 2016 Democratic nomination (already a done deal), but to determining the future of the Democratic Party. The coalition Sanders has assembled in California, and the way he’s campaigned in the state, is a sneak preview of the next generation of liberal politics, in a state that’s always seen as a bellwether for the rest of the nation. In a sense, the final vote tally really doesn’t matter—because, in the most important and lasting ways, Sanders has already won California.

I’ll be perfectly honest: As a California resident, I never thought Sanders had a chance to win the state, or even to compete as strongly as he has. I’ve seen way too many ideologically strident campaigns fail to deliver results in what’s generally considered America’s most liberal state. I remember one House candidate in 2008, backed by Progressive Democrats of America, who lost a primary to someone who never spent a dime, mainly because she had “educator” as her ballot designation. That race had incredibly low turnout, which is sadly the norm in a state without much of a political culture.

California is a liberal state, but it’s also a “machine” state: The labor federation’s preferred candidates, or the Democrats with high name recognition, are typically quite successful. The state is so massive that organizing on the ground can prove impossible. So can encouraging higher turnout among normally less-reliable voting groups.

This all made Hillary Clinton look like the perfect candidate for California. She garnered all the important endorsements, including governor and one-time bitter rival Jerry Brown. She certainly has the name ID. And she’s had an edge throughout the Democratic primary season with minority voters—which bodes well for a majority-minority state. A year ago this time, Clinton was up on Sanders in the well-respected Field Poll by a rather intimidating margin: 66-9.

But recent enhancements to voter registration laws have fostered political participation in California. Diligent work by progressives in 2012 to mobilize young and minority voters helped save the state, in fact, when they turned out to pass a budget-balancing tax hike on people making over $500,000 a year. (Don’t believe the Jerry Brown hagiographies; it was progressives, who forced Brown to place a winnable initiative on the ballot, who really primed California for its turnaround.) In just the first three months of this year, nearly 1 million voters registered—most of them Democratic, with big spikes for Latinos and young voters.

Those new voters have changed the composition of California’s electorate—and they’ve helped turn the Sanders-Clinton contest into, well, a contest. The most accurate polls statewide show the race a virtual tie; the Field Poll puts Clinton at 45 percent and Sanders at 43.

That doesn’t mean Sanders will win the state on Tuesday. Clinton is leading by nine points among the large number of Democrats who have already voted, meaning Sanders has the bigger challenge of turning voters out on Election Day. Not many will: In 2014, an incredible 69 percent of the votes in California were cast before election day in early voting or vote by mail. And to guard against a late Sanders surge, Clinton has returned to the state with her husband, planning 30 events in the final five days before the primary. She’s also made a million-dollar TV ad buy, nearly matching Sanders’s $1.5 million in ad spending.

“You have the power to choose a new direction for the Democratic Party,” Sanders says in “California,” the aptly named ad he’s been running in the state. It sounds like typical political happy talk, but his campaign has actually borne it out. Sanders has camped out in California for weeks, campaigning in spots that haven’t welcomed Democrats in many years, including Central Valley towns like Visalia and Vista and Bakersfield and Santa Maria, which are now between 45 and 70 percent Latino.

Sanders hasn’t just shown up to greet Californians and then jetted out. With a robust volunteer base, he’s been able to muster a statewide ground game, in contrast to most Democrats who prefer to run up the score in California’s urban metropolises. Clinton is still winning the Central Valley, but Sanders is keeping pace enough to remain competitive overall, thanks to a strong advantage in the Bay Area.

What is more striking is how the demographic splits we’ve seen across the country in the primaries aren’t translating to California. Sanders is only losing the Latino vote in the Field Poll 46-42. The African-American vote, while in favor of Clinton, is not the blowout we’ve seen elsewhere (57-36), and Sanders is winning the “Asian-American/other” category, which is actually bigger than the black vote (there are twice as many Asian-Americans as African-Americans in California), by a healthy margin.

The reason for this is an incredible divide on age, which does mirror what we’ve seen in other primaries. Sanders is winning 75-15 among Californians under 30, while Clinton has nearly a two-to-one advantage among voters 50 and older. Among first-time voters, Sanders is winning by a remarkable 60-21. This first-time voter split is similar to other primaries. The difference is that California simply has a lot more young voters to surge to the polls and make manifest Sanders’s “political revolution.”

Demographically, California represents the Democratic Party’s future. Latino voters in the state are young, in many cases the sons and daughters of immigrants who were born and raised elsewhere. And these voters have been engaged by an explicitly progressive message. That will matter long after this presidential race is over. Assuming that national Democrats don’t completely alienate the Latino electorate, the changing face of California’s voter population will determine a new generation of leadership. A realignment is happening in California, where the most powerful politicians in the state—Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer —are all septuagenarians or older, and either termed out, retiring, or on the way. (To those watching the Democrats’ geriatric presidential primary, this may sound familiar.) Young, ambitious, and (mostly) nonwhite politicians will fill those seats, and could lead the nation someday. At the least, they’ll lead the biggest chunk of liberal America, whose ideas and policies will resonate across the country.

In the short term, that could mean that instead of a Governor Gavin Newsom in 2018—instead of someone who’s strong on social issues but more moderate economically, in the Clinton mold—you could see John Chiang, the more liberal son of Taiwanese immigrants. You could see a Latino breakthrough statewide, reflecting their dominance in the state’s legislative leadership. And all would-be leaders will have to pay heed to the large bloc of progressive young voters that the Sanders campaign has helped to usher in.

Delegates and vote counts and nominations aside, Sanders’s campaign has reinvented Democratic politics in California. When—not if—his progressive successors rebuild the coalition, it will change liberal politics, both here and across the country.