It was yet another election day slap in the face for Californians on Tuesday: Hours before voters were to cast ballots that one presidential candidate promised would upend the race, the media declared that the race was actually over.
Once again, the presidential primary has been decided elsewhere.
“Wait, didn’t Hillary already win?” asked Bernie Sanders supporter Pedro Gomez, an Uber driver in Los Angeles. He was confused about whether to even bother voting.
She did. The Associated Press declared Monday night that Hillary Clinton had, indeed, amassed all the delegates she needed. On the GOP side, Donald Trump was already the winner by the time Californians got to have their say.
“It’s like, why vote?” said Arie Gonzalez, a 36-year-old musician and bartender in Long Beach. “The rules are ridiculous. I can’t believe Democrats have all these superdelegates and that we vote consistently always with Iowa first and California has no voice by the time it comes down to it. We’re a tenth of the population. It’s ridiculous.”
Yet, voters showed up at the polls, no small number of them motivated by a desire to cast a ballot in protest of the candidate who just clinched the nomination. Gomez and Gonzalez were among them.
Gomez said he wanted to register his displeasure with Clinton, “even if it doesn’t really count.” The Mexico native has concerns about Sanders’ record on immigration, in particular his vote against a 2007 immigration reform bill in the Senate, but he was even more uneasy with Clinton. He described her as someone “who only says what people want to hear.”
It was a theme echoed by voters entering polling places across the state. Uneasiness with Clinton seemed to rule the morning, reminding her campaign that even on this celebratory day, the party that Clinton has been chosen to lead remains deeply fractured amid concerns about her trustworthiness, her ties to Wall Street and, of course, her email server.
A quarter of California Democrats and independents in the recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll said they would only reluctantly vote for Clinton in November and nearly that many said they would outright refuse. Democrats who say they would not vote for Clinton in November most often cited as reasons Clinton’s involvement in scandals and controversy, her ties to Wall Street and their feeling that she is not genuine.
But it was also clear as Democratic voters shared their opinions on election day that Clinton has a very powerful tool for uniting the party unavailable eight years ago, when intraparty divisions were just as deep. She has Donald Trump as her adversary.
“When we’re up against Trump, I’ll vote for her,” Gomez said.
While few of the voters who stopped to chat believed Sanders can still win the nomination – despite what the candidate and his campaign insist – many said they need to see Clinton do more to earn their trust. They are bitter about the way Sanders has been treated by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party. They worry about Clinton’s motivations and her values.
There are lessons to be learned for the Clinton campaign in California, a diverse state where the presumptive nominee saw her huge lead evaporate even as she was on the verge of winning the race and had already launched her general election-facing assault on Trump.
“She has to have a positive, inspiring message. And right now her message is, it’s my turn,” said Mike Belgard, a 47-year-old tech worker who made the decision to vote for Sanders as he approached his polling place in the Curtis Park neighborhood of Sacramento. “I don’t know what Hillary stands for, other than getting elected.”
At the Inglewood Community Church, nestled next to a smog check and auto repair center, some Democrats could not wrap their head around the idea of ultimately supporting Clinton.
“It’s hard to trust someone who won’t even release transcripts from speeches she gives,” said Adilene Gloria, 26, an administrative worker. She was referring to Clinton’s refusal to provide transcripts of speeches she’s given to Wall Street firms. “There’s a long ways until the November election, but I need to feel some trust with her .… I’m not feeling that now,” Gloria said.
Yet there were also plenty of Clinton supporters enthusiastically casting ballots for their candidate, some of them delighted by the chance to be a part of history in helping her become the first female presidential nominee of a major political party.
“I like a lot about her, but one thing I like the most is that it’s time for a woman to run this country because the men, they don’t do right,” said Thelonious Cotton, 56, a newspaper delivery driver who cast his ballot in Long Beach.
“I always watched her career and admired her as a young woman who’s career-minded,” said Kelly Crown, 25, a healthcare business analyst who voted for Clinton in Echo Park. Crown said she was a big fan of Clinton’s book “Living History.” “Yes, she’s made mistakes,” Crown said. “She’s gone through a lot of stuff in her life, and I have a lot of respect for her.”
The newly wed Crown came to the polls with her husband, Kyle. He voted for Sanders. But like many others who did the same, he said he will vote for Clinton without reservation in the fall. Donald Trump, he said, must be stopped.
“I think most Bernie supporters would be doing a disservice by letting Trump come anywhere close to winning,” said Crown, a 25-year-old property manager.
Back in Long Beach, Cotton concurred, dismissing concerns that people see Clinton as untrustworthy or scandal-prone. “I don’t have any question about what she done did because people have done more crooked things than that,” he said.
Throughout California, voters had no shortage of advice for what Clinton should do next.
In Berkeley, Valerie Dow suggested that Clinton reach out to Sanders’ supporters in their natural habitat: social media. “She’s going to have to start building a network,” said Dow, a 63-year-old employee of UC Berkeley.
In Santa Monica, however, film industry worker Tyler Romer, 41, didn’t see point voting Tuesday morning. He opted instead to hang out in the Blue Daisy cafe with a plate of eggs Benedict.
He said California only matters in national politics when it comes to fundraising for campaigns, as the state consistently votes Democratic.
“Raise your money here and leave – that’s the motto of presidential candidates,” he said. “Will California voters ever really matter? Not likely.”
Lee reported from Inglewood, Mason from Berkeley and Halper from Washington.Staff writers Chris Megerian in Sacramento, Seema Mehta in Long Beach and Michael Finnegan and Kate Linthicum in Los Angeles contributed to this report.