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Essential Politics: How we figured out the American Independent Party has a bunch of accidental members

I’m Christina Bellantoni, kicking off your Monday with Essential Politics.

We’ve been working for months on the front-page investigation published Sunday detailing how a majority of American Independent Party members in California might be registered with the party by mistake.

When Colleen Shalby, a community engagement editor at The Times, realized she was one of them, she nearly had a panic attack.

She distinctly remembered wanting to proclaim her "independence" from her parents’ political leanings (one is Republican, the other a Democrat) as she filled out her first-ever voter registration form in college. But years later, here Shalby was, learning in a meeting with Times colleagues she was among the many thousands of people who mistakenly became AIP members.

When she found another member of the editorial staff who had similarly erred, she felt some comfort that she wasn’t alone. And the moral of her story is that it can happen to anyone.

HOW WE DID IT

How did the idea for the project come together? It had been bubbling for years.

The American Independent Party numbers had always bugged Paul Mitchell, who runs a political data firm in California and closely studies voter trends and boundaries of state legislative and congressional districts. He suspected the growth in the party was not due to voters’ attraction to the group’s ultraconservative, anti-abortion platform. Instead, it seemed, they were confused by the name.

Mitchell made it a bit of his own personal quest, and even teamed with a member of the Coastal Commission two years ago for an “AIPril Fooled” campaign to educate people. 

Mitchell talked it over last year with veteran political journalist John Myers, who in October became Sacramento bureau chief at The Times. They realized the theory could actually be tested. Mitchell connected The Times with a bipartisan polling team who conducted the survey pro-bono, and provided those firms with the voter data.

The pollsters each have been involved in California’s primary — Ben Tulchin does polling for Democratic contender Bernie Sanders and Val Smith’s firm has polled California Republicans about their presidential preference. Neither of them shared the poll results with other clients, and it was not made public until our story went live Sunday morning.

The Times independently worked with the pollsters to craft the questions for the survey, which was conducted in February. We weren’t sure what we’d come up with, or if we’d even have a story.

The numbers made clear that Mitchell was on to something.

Our subsequent investigation and the voter database we obtained through a public records request revealed residents of rural and urban communities, students and business owners and top Hollywood celebrities with known Democratic leanings — including Sugar Ray Leonard, Demi Moore and Emma Stonewere among those who believed they were declaring that they preferred no party affiliation when they checked the box for the American Independent Party.

Check for yourself, and if you are mistakenly registered, please share your story.

For more on the California primary and what’s happening in Sacramento, keep an eye on our Essential Politics news feed.

CLINTON POPS BY LOS ANGELES TO RAISE BIG BUCKS

Over the weekend Hillary Clinton detoured from the intense campaign ahead of New York’s Tuesday primary, raising well into the millions with George Clooney and other Hollywood glitterati.

As we reported in this space, she added a rally to her day in California.

"I love coming to California. ... We need to get to work for a big victory in California," she said at Los Angeles Southwest College.

A pair of seats at her table with Clooney cost donors more than $353,000 Friday night in San Francisco, the most expensive tickets at an event attended by 70 people and hosted by venture capitalist and early Uber investor Shervin Pishevar. Another event was to be held at Clooney’s home in Los Angeles, where the priciest tickets cost $100,000 per couple. The events underscore the state's outsize role as a money tree for Democratic candidates.

Sanders responded with a television ad highlighting the difference between her high-dollar events and the average contributions his donors are giving.

Clooney himself said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press" that he doesn't enjoy doing the kind of fundraisers he did for Clinton in San Francisco and Los Angeles this weekend but called them necessary for Democrats to compete in November's elections. He said agrees with Sanders there is "an obscene amount of money" in politics. 

The fundraisers benefited the Hillary Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee between her presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and state Democratic parties.

Sanders supporters are getting a lot of attention lately — and not the good kind. Since Clinton still leads in the delegate race, some feeling the "Bern" have been mounting public pressure on the party officials and local activists known as superdelegates. From calls in the middle of the night to threatening emails, the supporters may not be doing Sanders any favors.

OBAMA SITTING OUT PRIMARY

As Democratic fault lines deepen, Christi Parsons and Michael Memoli report that President Obama is likely to sit out the entire presidential primary season amid concerns about the damage he could do by stepping too soon into a contentious contest running far longer than he expected.

ANOTHER TRUMP PROTEST

Bay Area liberals are organizing to protest Donald Trump’s upcoming speech at the state Republican convention at the Hyatt in Burlingame.

GEARING UP FOR A GUBERNATORIAL BID

He’s a numbers geek who once tried to cut off lawmakers’ paychecks. And the odds are "over 90%" that he’ll run for governor.

George Skelton talks to California Treasurer John Chiang to try to understand why he wants the job.

QUESTIONS AT FISH AND WILDLIFE

Just 1% of Californians hunt. But some of those who do spend weekends and vacations outdoors with their hunting rifles say they don’t feel supported by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, which they say is dominated by animal rights activists and other pro-environment voices.

Patrick McGreevy reports that now advocacy groups are speaking out on behalf of hunters and anglers in hopes that Gov. Jerry Brown’s next appointment to the panel will better represent their views.

CHARGES OF VIOLENCE HIT CAMPAIGN 

Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, who is seeking a congressional seat, has been ordered to stay away from his estranged wife, a Baldwin Park City Council member, after she said he violently abused her during their marriage.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court granted a temporary restraining order Wednesday that requires Hernandez (D-West Covina) to have no contact with Councilwoman Susan Rubio, whom he is divorcing. Hernandez, who has served in the California Assembly since 2010, is challenging Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk).

WOOING MILLENNIALS

House Democrats have found a way to connect with millennials: talking about student loan debt.

They have tasked 35-year-old California Rep. Eric Swalwell to lead the way with his group of young, and youngish, House members, who are traveling the country talking about their own debt and brainstorming legislation with people in their 20s and early 30s.

A BOOST FROM BUSINESS

Chevron Corp. and other business groups have poured nearly $2 million into an independent expenditure committee that has spent at least some of it so far to support Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D-San Bernardino). Brown, who is facing a serious intraparty challenge from Eloise Reyes, has been criticized in recent months for her votes on labor issues, and in particular, her role in helping block a key oil reduction provision in last year’s climate change bill.

In a statement, Brown said she was "as surprised as everyone else" at the contributions to the committee, which by law cannot coordinate with her campaign.

PODCAST: BROWN’S PROGRESSIVE PIVOT

The governor’s back-to-back signing of laws long sought by progressive Democrats has some wondering: Is Brown about to make a pivot towards the party’s liberal base?

That’s the top talker in this week’s California Politics Podcast. John Myers also leads a discussion on the first California moves by Donald Trump and the early collection of personal income taxes that play such a big part in the state budget debate.

TODAY’S ESSENTIALS

-- Sen. Ted Cruz nabbed even more delegates over the weekend. Track the delegate race in real time.

-- Spotted in the Central Valley: a pro-Cruz campaign billboard featuring the Texas senator’s photo and and his slogan, "TrusTed."

-- Newsweek came to California to write a lengthy cover story on Brown. The title tells you the angle the magazine took: "How Jerry Brown Quietly Saved California."

-- Don’t eat pizza with a fork, and other food-based observations from Cathleen Decker on the campaign trail. 

-- What do you think of Trump? Readers can weigh in with our quick survey.

LOGISTICS

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