In the end, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s California campaign was carried to victory by voters like Maria Hernandez of Boyle Heights, who cast her first vote for Bill Clinton and returned Tuesday to do the same for his wife.
Clinton’s victory -- a romp compared with some of the predictions just before election day -- rested on the twin pillars of women and Latinos, groups that overlapped in the person of voters like Hernandez.
The campaign put up a fierce fight for women who vote by mail, calling and re-calling until they turned in their ballots. And then Clinton’s aides aimed their organizational firepower at the Latino community.
The efforts paid off. Women backed Clinton 59% to 36%, contributing to a giant gender gap compared with men, who sided narrowly with Barack Obama, according to an exit poll by a consortium of news organizations.
Latinos went for Clinton by a 2-1 margin. What made that margin even more significant was that Latinos made up a record proportion of the electorate. Three in 10 of those who voted in the Democratic primary were Latino, the exit poll said, almost double the proportion in 2004.
Latino political strength has grown substantially over the last several elections in California, pushed along by the growing Latino population. In 2000, only 7% of the primary electorate was Latino, according to a Times exit poll.
The increased power can also be seen in the number of Latino elected officials in the state, many of whom endorsed Clinton and provided her with an influential base of support.
Clinton -- who had difficulty among California’s non-Latino white voters, splitting them with Obama -- was hoping to press her advantage among women and Latinos in future states. Of the major states with primaries still to come, however, none but Texas, which votes March 4, has a particularly large number of Latino voters.
For Clinton, the California victory marked a reassertion of the power of a traditional campaign, after weeks in which the insurgent, if well-funded, Obama effort steadily cut into her advantage in pre-election polls.
Clinton started with an advantage among three important overlapping sectors of the Democratic Party in California: women, Latinos and voters with lower incomes. She has run well among those groups in other states, and the campaign’s goal was to keep the streak going.
One target was mail-in voters, who tend to be more white, more female and more Northern Californian by residence than voters overall. Women in particular were targeted with mailers, beginning in November. Campaign officials mined data at each registrar’s office to determine who had voted and who had not.
Making more than 1 1/2 million phone calls, “we literally vote-by-vote rounded up” those voters, said Ace Smith, Clinton’s campaign director in California.
While that effort was targeting mail-in voters, another was pressing Latinos, who had backed former President Clinton during his administration, to side with his wife. If gender helped Hillary Clinton among the women mail-in voters, tradition helped her with Latino voters.
Clinton’s early endorsements included United Farm Workers icon Dolores Huerta, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. In the closing days of the campaign, Los Angeles County supervisor Gloria Molina endorsed her. She also had in her corner a number of popular Latina members of Congress.
Among most voters, endorsements carry little weight. But the Latino endorsements deepened Clinton’s volunteer ranks and offered her the borrowed credibility of people who had cachet where it counted.
“There is still a lot of trust and reverence for that community that does not exist in other communities anymore,” Smith said. And, since many of the Latino members of Congress and the Legislature are women, “being a woman of stature is a huge positive,” he said.
Clinton’s emphasis on healthcare and the economy also helped, allowing her to trade on the prosperity that many Latinos enjoyed during her husband’s administration.
The Obama campaign, by contrast, aired Spanish-language radio ads promoting his support for issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. That was a “classic Northeastern assumption” that licenses were the primary concern of Latinos, according to Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC.
“It’s not. I think he would have had much more traction on issues like education, or the loss of jobs . . . issues that resonate with Latino homeowners,” Pachon said.
Obama had some influential Latino supporters, particularly Maria Elena Durazo, head of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. She said the Clinton name still carries heft with Latinos because of the relative prosperity of the 1990s.
“There’s no doubt we made tremendous progress in the Latino community, but there was no way we could close the gap. It was just too deep,” Durazo said.
Clinton’s dominance in Latino neighborhoods contributed to a huge margin in the state’s most populous county, Los Angeles. By late Wednesday, vote tallies showed her winning L.A. by more than 162,000 votes. That dwarfed Obama’s margins in his Bay Area power base, where his leads in Alameda, San Francisco and Marin counties totaled only 37,000 votes combined.
State officials were still not saying how many Californians voted Tuesday. Determining turnout was complicated by the massive tide of both precinct voters and mail-in balloters. But turnout was expected to exceed the 54% reached in the 2000 presidential primary, the last in which both major parties had contested races.
Stephen Weir, head of the state association of elections officials, estimated Wednesday that up to 2 million ballots remained uncounted. An additional 450,000 provisional ballots, filed when there is a dispute at a polling place, were also uncounted, according to Weir, the clerk-recorder of Contra Costa County.
Elections officials have until March 4 to complete their tally, on which rests the division of party delegates. Both the 170 Republican delegates and most of the 370 Democratic delegates will be apportioned according to the results in the state’s congressional districts.
Among Republicans, California winner John McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona, was expected to pick up almost all of the delegates. Democratic delegates, parceled out under a complicated formula, were expected to be more split, with a narrow majority going to Clinton.
The exit poll showed the roller-coaster ride of the Democratic campaign. Those who decided in the last month, as Obama soared after the Iowa caucuses, backed the Illinois senator. Voters who decided a week before election day went with Clinton. Those who decided within three days of Tuesday’s vote went with Obama. Election day deciders went to Clinton.
Untouched by all the tumult were the four-in-10 voters who said they had decided long ago to go with Clinton and had remained loyal. Included in that group was Boyle Heights resident Hernandez, whose vote for Bill Clinton in 1996 was her first as a naturalized citizen.
“He was a confident person,” said Hernandez, who was born in Mexico. “She will be too.”
Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.