Sanders' Biggest Hurdle in California May Not Be Clinton, But Instead Time Zones

USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Woman in voting booth
USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Woman in voting booth

Co-Authored by Maclen Zilber, Democratic Strategist and Campaign Consultant based in Hollywood, CA

Imagine this. You're a poll voter in California, who has spent all day at work, excited to show up at the polls and cast your vote for Senator Bernie Sanders. You leave work at 5PM, quickly turn on the TV before you head over to your polling location, and on the muted TV, you see a marquee that says "Clinton clinches Democratic nomination, declares victory."

You un-mute the television, and hear the talking heads discussing that the Democratic primary campaign is over.

This could be the reality many late poll voters face this Tuesday, June 7th in California, if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plays her cards right.

Bernie Sanders has a hurdle few have talked about in his effort to win California-- time zones-- and how the difference between when polls close on the East Coast vs. the West Coast could impact turnout in the Golden State and possibly depress Sanders' vote.

On Tuesday night, six states hold their Democratic primary contests, but California and New Jersey are the biggest prizes. Hillary Clinton is currently just 72 delegates away from an outright majority of convention delegates: 2,383.

This weekend we'll see the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico - two territories Clinton is expected to win handily - hold their Democratic primary contests. With a pickup in the neighborhood of 40 delegates from those two contests - which is very plausible - Clinton would get within 32 delegates of clinching the nomination.

On Tuesday, Clinton is favored to win New Jersey by a huge margin, while California's primary is too close to call as polling shows a razor thin margin.

This is where it gets interesting.

New Jersey has 126 pledged delegates. Even if Clinton were to somehow face a major upset loss in New Jersey, she'd easily surpass the 30-35 delegates she'll need at that point to earn an outright majority of convention delegates.

New Jersey's polls will close at 5 PM Pacific time on Tuesday - a significant three hours before polls close in California. In those three hours, cable news, social media, and the world will be abuzz with the news that Clinton is the presumptive nominee.

If Clinton wants to swamp any other narrative that comes out of Tuesday's elections, she may want to declare victory at 5PM PST.

At that pivotal time, Clinton shouldn't just declare a triumph in New Jersey, but instead announce that she's officially wrapped up the Democratic Party's nomination by clinching the requisite number of delegates. She ought to be gracious and courteous to Sanders, while at the same time, begin the transition to a general election narrative by emphasizing the need for all Democrats (and Independents who backed Sanders) to unite behind her and against the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump.

Once framed with this narrative, the four additional and non-California or New Jersey states that vote next Tuesday - North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and New Mexico - could potentially start to be framed as simply adding to Clinton's delegate tally, rather than being perceived as losses. While these are all states that Sanders should perform well in, once the storyline becomes that Clinton has mathematically sealed the nomination, the only tally that will matter is how far Clinton has gotten past the magic number 2,383. By 8PM PST, Clinton could possibly be more than 50 delegates past the magic number.

Sanders' play in California, granted, was never to come back in the delegate math. It was to win the momentum battle and the narrative war and to use both as leverage for him to get something tangible out of the upcoming Democratic Party convention. The thinking was, by winning five of six states on Tuesday, Sanders could continue making the case that he has the wind at his back.

However, if Clinton declares victory at 5PM PST and the media buys it - and the press loves a good story - it might drown out any counter-narrative Sanders is able to muster about momentum. If the press declares Clinton the victor at 5PM PST, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy in California, with thousands of late Sanders poll voters deciding to stay home.

The one thing that Clinton must consider if contemplating this strategy, is that while she has relatively little risk in losing the nomination, such a move could potentially anger Sanders supporters. And, given the fact that Clinton's initial objective as the presumptive nominee will be to heal the Party and to do as little damage to the unification process as possible, this strategy may represent a double-edged sword.

The short term risk of aggravating some Sanders voters by declaring victory at 5PM PST after New Jersey and before California may nevertheless be worth the long-term gains if it helps Clinton win in the Golden State. It'll speed up the Party's coalescing process around her as the official standard bearer, increase the likelihood that Sanders doesn't stay in the race much longer and help to strengthen Clinton's footing as the nominee going into convention. Either way, Clinton may end up having zero power in dictating this narrative. At the end of the day, regardless if she decides to embrace this strategy or not, the press might make Clinton's decision for her - by declaring her the nominee after New Jersey - whether she makes a speech or not.