Analysis: Ahead of California primary, Clinton focuses on Trump as Sanders seeks to prolong ‘the Bern’

Supporters reach toward Hillary Clinton on Tuesday after her speech at UC Riverside.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

As the primary season whirls to an end, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are two planets occupying orbits that only occasionally cross.

Both presidential candidates have coursed across California in recent days, pleading with voters to give them the victory each needs in the June 7 Democratic primary. Both warned of challenges ahead that are fraught with danger.

But they are different challenges, as their recent California events show.

Clinton is aiming at presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and the threat she says he would pose to the nation. She has honed her pitch to emphasize what she says are his failings as a candidate and would-be president. She is running on her merit, to be sure, but also as the only alternative to Trump winning the White House.


Sanders is focused on the nearly impossible task of overtaking Clinton between now and the summer convention. If he is not yet crafting an elegy for his presidential hopes, he increasingly is describing his goals as the tenets of a movement that could outlive his candidacy. He scaldingly targets both Republicans and Democrats as consumed by corruption.

“I think it’s important that people look and compare,” Clinton said Tuesday, speaking from a stage in a UC Riverside gymnasium. “Because we’re going to take on Donald Trump. He can go ahead and engage in insulting and scapegoating and demeaning and bullying people, but I think the American voter is a lot smarter than to fall for that, don’t you?”

She returned to the theme on Wednesday in Buena Park, where she said that in Trump’s world, “he gets his, and you get hurt.”

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A few miles away and a few hours before Clinton spoke, Sanders closed his speech at the Riverside Municipal Auditorium with an emphatic cry for persistence among his avid followers.

“My point is: What seems impossible today, 20 years from now people will say ‘Oh, no big deal,’” he said after a long explication on the social struggles in America’s past. “What the system always tried to make us feel is that real change is impossible.”


“Bottom line,” he said a moment later, “is if we have the vision and if we have the courage, we can transform this country and make it into the country that all of us know it can be.”

Sanders reiterated that thrust Tuesday night in San Bernardino and Wednesday in Cathedral City.

The challenges they confront differ, and so do the reasons the candidates need a California victory.

Clinton needs only a handful of additional delegates to clinch the nomination, but big wins on the last major day of the campaign would hasten the party unification she will need if she is to defeat Trump in November.

Sanders received some good news Wednesday night when a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found Clinton leading by a mere 2 percentage points among likely primary voters in the state.

A Sanders win on June 7 would revive at least in part his long-shot argument that party superdelegates should flip to him to increase the odds of a Democratic victory over Trump. More realistically, a solid victory would strengthen his hand in debates over the Democrats’ future.

For both, the divergent paths at the end of the primary season echo a campaign in which they have presented themselves all along in very different ways, based on their strengths and their needs.

Clinton is the establishment candidate in a non-establishment year, the policy nerd in a campaign that so far has favored bombast.

But if her toughness is not questioned by voters, her humanity and trustworthiness has been. And that has driven her to spend much of the campaign in coffee shops and bakeries and other cozy settings where she can more intimately demonstrate both knowledge and compassion.

Sanders has struggled to win over minorities and other key Democratic groups but, even so, has captured young and liberal Americans. His provocative call to political revolution has drawn giant crowds, which he has used to stoke further momentum, like a wildfire creating its own weather system.

Those differences mask abundant similarities when it comes to their positions and the issues they emphasize.

In their back-to-back speeches Tuesday, both candidates pledged to overturn the Supreme Court decision that allowed almost unfettered fundraising from interest groups and promised to push for immigration reform that includes citizenship for those in the country illegally.

Both said they would work to reverse pay inequity for women, fund more addiction treatment centers, protect abortion rights and increase spending on roads, water systems and other basic government functions.

On other topics they have differences in approach but not goals: expanding healthcare coverage, raising the minimum wage and pursuing policies to limit climate change.

Sanders’ events have had a curiously split personality in recent days. The candidate has curbed his criticism of Clinton, going through his litany of policy proposals without the lancing critiques of her he prominently featured in states whose contests occurred earlier in the primary season. But his supporters retain a confident enthusiasm that he will defy electoral math to become the nominee.

Starting hours before his arrival at the Riverside event, the crowd that reached into the thousands spiraled for blocks adjacent to the 1929 auditorium. Inside, they chanted: “What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like,” and “Feel the Bern,” among other slogans, as upbeat music blared from the speakers.

Deafening applause greeted Sanders’ arrival and broke out in regular spurts. His speech included a fusillade at bipartisan targets.

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The political establishment and another favorite target—the “corporate media” — aren’t asking the right questions, he said, and then commenced asking them.

“How does it happen that in America for the last 35 years, the middle class has been shrinking, shrinking and shrinking?” he asked, defining a period that included the tenures of the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

“How does it happen in America today we have 47 million people living in poverty — we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any other major country on Earth? And yet at the same time we are seeing a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires?”

The answers, he said, lay in a bipartisan acquiescence to moneyed special interests.

“What is going on in Washington and state legislatures is that elected officials are beholden to the billionaire class,” he said. “They couldn’t care less about what happens to working people, or poor people or the elderly or children or the sick. That’s not their interest. Their interest is hustling for campaign contributions from the wealthy and doing the bidding of the wealthy.”

Sanders, who was a longtime independent, has spent most of his political life untethered to a party, and Clinton her entire adult life inside the Democratic structure, so her argument has a far more partisan cast.

She credited Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama — both of whom, she noted wryly, she knows well — for boosting the economy. Trump’s policies would push the nation into another economic downturn, she said.

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“When I think about the ’90s, I think about … new jobs and incomes that went up for everybody, not just people at the top, and that’s important because that’s what we need again, don’t we?” she said. “We need more good jobs with rising incomes.”

Trump lacked an understanding of Americans’ economic struggles, she said, and would represent a threat to the country and its allies as commander in chief.

“We’ve got to produce positive results, but we’ve also got to protect America,” she said, and then raised the specter of the terrorism visited upon a nearby city last year.

“We’re not that far from San Bernardino, are we? We’ve got to protect the American people, and we have to continue to lead the world with strength and steadiness … and when you think of what Trump has done just in the last few weeks, it should give anybody pause.”

Both lavished praise on the state that may deliver a final judgment on June 7.

“I hope very much that this incredibly beautiful and progressive state, our largest state, tells the entire world — and the world will be watching — that California believes in the political revolution,” Sanders said Tuesday.

And on the importance of a victory here, at least, Clinton’s orbit crossed with his.

“I need your help in this upcoming primary because we want to finish strong and we want to send that message that we’re going to fight every day,” she said. “I will fight for you, I will fight for us, every single day.”

Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to and subscribe to the free daily newsletter.


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9:13 p.m.: The story was updated with information about a poll on the California Democratic race.

2:23 p.m.: The story was updated with information on campaign events Wednesday.

The story was first published at 6:52 a.m.