Poll

As California primary nears, even Sanders supporters are uniting behind Clinton and against a common enemy: Trump

Most of Sen. Bernie Sanders' supporters in California say they expect that come November, Hillary Clinton will be elected president — and, by and large, they're OK with that.

While both Democratic camps prepare for a final battle in the state’s June 7 primary, the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times statewide poll found that just over half of Sanders’ supporters said they expected Clinton to be the next president. About a third of Sanders’ backers said they expected the Vermont senator to emerge the winner, and 12% said they thought Donald Trump would prevail.

Close to 8 in 10 Sanders supporters said in the survey that they would vote for Clinton in a race against Trump, although many said they would do so reluctantly.

Those findings show the reality underlying the still-heated rhetoric of the Democratic primaries: By contrast with the civil war that divides Republicans, Democrats in the country’s largest state have begun to coalesce behind their front-runner.

In the primary race, Clinton holds a modest lead over Sanders, 45% to 37%, among all Democrats and independent voters eligible to vote. Her lead is slightly larger, 47% to 36%, among those most likely to vote. Either way, that’s a significant problem for Sanders.

The poll was conducted before Sanders’ sweep of three Western states — Alaska, Hawaii and Washington — on Saturday, but those victories don’t change the electoral math much. Sanders would need not just a win in California, but something close to a landslide to overcome Clinton’s large lead in delegates before the party’s nominating convention in July.

Something else hasn’t changed: If there’s one blemish in the picture for Clinton, it’s the persistently high percentage of voters who have an unfavorable image of her, 45% in the new poll.

Clinton’s image in heavily Democratic California is more positive than it is in more Republican parts of the country; 52% of the state’s surveyed voters see her favorably. She fares far better than Trump, her most likely opponent in November, who is viewed negatively by almost three-fourths of California voters.

But her image with the public lags significantly behind other leading Democrats. That includes President Obama, whose popularity has risen, both statewide and nationally, in recent weeks. He is now seen favorably by 65% of the state’s voters, the highest level since early in his tenure. Gov. Jerry Brown is viewed favorably by 57%. Both men are viewed negatively by about one-third of voters.

The large share of voters who have a negative view of her does not put Clinton in danger of losing California in a general election: She would defeat any of the Republican candidates handily in the state, which has formed the cornerstone of Democratic victories nationally ever since her husband’s win in 1992. Against Trump, in particular, Clinton would win overwhelmingly, the poll indicated, carrying the state 59% to 28%.

But the negative impressions of so many Californians point toward the deeper problem she faces in the country and also to the likely tone of the fall campaign. A Clinton-Trump race, more than any other in recent decades, would feature two candidates who would start the campaign with large parts of the electorate deeply disenchanted with them. Given that, each side is likely to try to focus voters’ attention on the other’s flaws.

“Clinton’s challenge is not one of persuasion, it’s one of motivation,” said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “She’s not going to get Sanders supporters to fall in love with her,” he added, but “the other way to motivate your base is to frighten them about the alternative. Against Donald Trump, that should be very doable.”

That’s certainly the case for Gretta Whalen, a 32-year-old freelance writer and communications consultant from Los Angeles, who leans toward Sanders. Clinton, she said, “has been around for so long, and we know so much about her, and not all of it is positive.” Sanders, by contrast, seems attractive, and his ideas feel new, even if “some of them are very pie in the sky and would be very difficult to get the rest of the country on board with.”

But, she added, as she paused from feeding her newborn son, the contest is different “now that we’re looking at a likely race against Donald Trump.” She and her friends, most of whom back Sanders, “are all so shocked that we’re in this place where Donald Trump is a serious contender for president,” she said. Compared with past elections, this campaign “feels a little more surreal.”

“I was much more excited about Bernie” earlier in the campaign season, she added. “We love him as a candidate. We also recognize that he’s not the most realistic winner.”

Just under 1 in 4 voters in the state have a negative image of both of the likely contestants. That group would hold its nose and side with Clinton over Trump, 38% to 23%, with a significant share of them saying they would not vote at all, the poll found.

Sercan Ersoy, a 33-year-old substitute teacher in Oakland, has much more negative feelings about Clinton than does Whalen. A former member of the Green Party who changed his registration in order to vote for Sanders in the primary, Ersoy feels Clinton is “too much of a war hawk” in addition to having too many ties to Wall Street. “I don’t want to vote for her,” he said.

But “if you ask me in late October,” he added, “and there’s a real possibility of a President Trump, I might say, ‘OK. I’ll vote for Hillary.’”

This USC/L.A. Times poll was conducted March 16-23 by telephone, both cellphone and landline, among 1,503 registered voters in California, including 832 Democrats and non-party voters eligible to take part in the June primary. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for the full sample and 3.7 percentage points for the Democratic primary sample. It was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm, and the Republican company American Viewpoint.

The poll found the race between Clinton and Sanders dividing along lines that have become familiar during nearly two months of primaries: Sanders overwhelmingly wins voters younger than 30; Clinton does better with older voters. She leads among women by 11 percentage points, among men by 5 points.

Clinton leads narrowly among white voters but has a much larger edge among blacks and Latinos. In a surprise, given her family’s long-standing popularity with Asian voters, Clinton appears to be trailing Sanders with that group, although his edge, 43% to 35%, is within the poll’s margin of error for such a subgroup.

Clinton’s lead among minority voters is “much more muted” than her edge in previous contests in Texas and across the South, said pollster Anna Greenberg. That’s largely a result of a generational divide, with Sanders leading among younger Latinos, much as he does among young white voters. The other minority groups are too small to allow a detailed breakdown by age.

The other significant division in the primary is by party. California’s Democratic primary is open to registered Democrats as well as voters who decline to state a party. Clinton leads Sanders by 14 percentage points among registered Democrats; Sanders leads by 9 percentage points among the nonpartisan voters — again a pattern seen repeatedly in other states.

Among Sanders voters, 80% polled said they would vote for Clinton in November, although the share saying they would do so “reluctantly,” 45%, outnumbers those who would do so “enthusiastically,” 35%.

About 1 in 8 Democratic primary voters surveyed said they would refuse to vote for Clinton if she is the nominee. That’s half the level of rejection that Trump faces among Republican primary voters.

Among the Democratic primary voters most resistant to backing her in the fall are white men 65 and older, according to the poll. By contrast, only 4% of people who identified themselves as students said they would refuse to vote for Clinton — another indication that Sanders’ core supporters are unlikely to reject her candidacy.

By 72% to 21%, Democratic primary voters said in the survey that they are excited about the prospect of voting for the first female president.

Sanders has centered his campaign around the belief that the U.S. economy is unfairly rigged by Wall Street and big corporations. Not surprisingly, a large majority of his voters share that view.

The poll asked people if they thought that in today’s economy “everyone has a fair chance to get ahead in the long run if they work hard” or if “it’s mainly just a few people at the top who have a chance to get ahead.” By more than 2 to 1, Sanders’ voters said that only those at the top could get ahead.

Clinton’s supporters were more evenly divided, with 52% saying that everyone had a fair chance and 42% saying that only those at the top could get ahead. That reflected, in part, the feelings of Latinos, who are more likely than other Americans to say that hard work still pays off in the long run.

Those who backed Clinton were also more likely than Sanders’ backers to say that “when it comes to good jobs for American workers, our best years are ahead of us.” More than 6 in 10 of Clinton’s voters agreed with that statement, compared with just under half of Sanders’.

Neither group of Democratic voters was as pessimistic as Trump’s supporters, however. A majority of them said that when it comes to good jobs, “America’s best years are behind us."

david.lauter@latimes.com

For more on Campaign 2016, follow @davidlauter

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Full coverage of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll

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