This Is How the Democratic Primary Race Will End

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
BROOKLYN, NY - Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders appear on stage just before the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York on Thursday April 14, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Photograph by Melina Mara — The Washington Post via Getty Images

Updated 6/6/2016 10:01 p.m. EST

The long fight for the Democratic presidential nomination should effectively end Tuesday in a key state. It all comes down to New Jersey.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign and some press reports have pushed the idea that California’s primary on Tuesday is a vital litmus test for Clinton. The candidates head into the Golden State contest, which awards 475 delegates, close to tied in most polling.

Sanders fueled the last-stand narrative over the weekend, amping up his attacks on Clinton’s foreign policy and taking aim at the nonprofit Clinton Foundation.

It is true that Sanders, a Vermont Senator, could cite a California win to claim he is best prepared defeat Donald Trump in the general election. If Sanders loses, he’ll face increased pressure to drop out, allowing Democrats to unify faster. Clinton acknowledges the state matters. “It means the world to me,” she said at a rally Sunday in Sacramento.

But California is no more a litmus test than New York, Florida, Texas, or any of the other big states Clinton has won. The real test has been the entire nominating contest, in which Clinton has won more votes, states, total delegates, and pledged delegates.

Over the weekend, Clinton won primaries in the Virgin Islands, netting seven delegates, and Puerto Rico, winning 36 of 60 delegates. The results put her, by unofficial counts, 24 delegates away from locking down enough support among pledged and committed superdelegates to clinch the Democratic nomination.

Clinton will almost surely become the presumptive Democratic nominee after polls close on Tuesday in New Jersey, with 126 pledged delegates at stake, unless polling in the state is historically wrong. If New Jersey, which Sanders has not invested in contesting, is close, Clinton will get more than enough to clinch there.

Clinton is preparing to claim victory at a rally in Brooklyn even as voting continues in California.

“On Tuesday, I will have decisively won the popular vote and I will have decisively won the pledged delegate majority,” the former Secretary of State said Sunday on CNN. “You can’t get much more than that out of a primary season.”

Clinton plans an outreach push to unify the party after Tuesday, and reportedly will receive President Obama’s formal endorsement soon.

For months, Clinton’s advantage in the nomination contest has rested on Democrats’ proportional awarding of delegates. California offers 158 pledged delegates proportionately based on the statewide vote. Another 317 are split proportionately at the congressional district level. So, no matter who wins California, the candidates will split delegates. Because Clinton has a big lead in delegates, split results benefit her, even if Sanders wins a close vote. It’s like exchanging baskets late in a basketball game. If you’re ahead already, it helps.

To make California count among delegates, Sanders needs to crush Clinton, winning more than 80% of the vote. He won’t. He can win upcoming contests in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. But those states award a combined 59 delegates, not enough to catch up even if Sanders won them all.

New Mexico, a tougher state for Sanders, and the District of Columbia further complicate the Vermont Senator’s case. The scheduling of D.C.’s primary at the end of nomination fight helps Clinton. If Sanders wins California, he could say he won the last big state. But because Washington’s heavily African American electorate firmly favors her, Clinton will likely be able to say she won the final contest. If Sanders wins California, he can say he won the most populous state. But so what? Clinton can say she’s won millions more votes overall.

Sanders’ remaining argument is that he is better able to defeat Donald Trump because polls show him beating the presumptive Republican nominee by wider margins. Sanders says superdelegates, 547 of whom who have said they support Clinton, could switch over to him at the convention on that basis.

The problem is that the superdelegates don’t agree with Sanders’ argument. Many are elected officials who backed Clinton early in hopes that the favor will later be returned if she is elected. Since she remains the favorite against Trump, they aren’t likely to risk her campaign’s displeasure all while she is closer than ever to the White House. Superdelegates may agree with the Clinton campaign’s view that Sanders’ poll numbers are inflated because he has barely been attacked during the campaign.

Primary votes cast in South Carolina, California, and Washington D.C. all count. Clinton will finish the primary contest with more of them, and more delegates, pledged and super. Sanders may cite his performance in California as evidence that he should stay in the contest. He has the right to use his power to delay party unification to press his policy views. What he cannot plausibly claim is the ability to win the nomination.

That will be settled on Tuesday in New Jersey.

Update: The Associated Press reported Monday that Clinton had already won commitments from enough delegates to become the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for president. The AP said Clinton now has support from 2,383 delegates, enough to ensure she will secure the nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention. The count includes pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses and so-called superdelegates. The AP’s Monday night count found 23 new superdelegates who support Clinton, putting her across the threshold to clinch her party’s nomination.

Clinton’s campaign partly downplayed the declaration.

Superdelegates can say who they plan to support, but they can change their minds until they actually vote at the party’s convention. Sanders has placed his hopes on large numbers doing so. His campaign blasted the AP report.

“It is unfortunate that the media, in a rush to judgement, are ignoring the Democratic National Committee’s clear statement that it is wrong to count the votes of superdelegates before they actually vote at the convention this summer,” the campaign said in a statement on Monday. “Secretary Clinton does not have and will not have the requisite number of pledged delegates to secure the nomination. She will be dependent on superdelegates who do not vote until July 25 and who can change their minds between now and then.”

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