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Capitol Journal: Delegate math doesn’t add up for Bernie Sanders in California

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses supporters at the Wiltern in Los Angeles. Even if he wins a significant share of the delegates in the California primary, it'll be had for him to catch up to Hillary Clinton.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses supporters at the Wiltern in Los Angeles. Even if he wins a significant share of the delegates in the California primary, it’ll be had for him to catch up to Hillary Clinton.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Reformers can kill all the fun. There’s no better example than the California battle shaping up between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Because of past do-gooders, neither candidate can really run up a big score in the June 7 presidential primary.

Most significantly, it will be virtually impossible for Sanders to catch Clinton in the delegate race, even if he achieves a stunning upset.

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California will send 546 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia the last week in July. That will be by far the largest state bloc and 23% of the total needed to nominate the party’s presidential candidate.

What if all California delegates were awarded the old-fashioned, pre-reform way — winner-take-all? The candidate who won the statewide vote would cart off all the delegates.

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That would be exciting. It might even rival national attention paid earlier to pipsqueak states Iowa and New Hampshire.

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It would be worth multimillion-dollar media buys, border-to-border barnstorming and bringing out the mariachi bands. The victor could win the whole enchilada: the nomination.

California primaries haven’t been that compelling since 1972 when the anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam War candidate George McGovern — the Sanders of his day — beat former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He won all 271 California delegates and thus the nomination.

Well, it wasn’t quite that simple. Drama ensued at the Miami convention. Crazed Humphrey forces initially stripped McGovern of 151 California delegates, triggering a pivotal floor brawl. California leader Willie Brown pounded the podium and shouted: “Give me back my delegation!”

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The convention did. McGovern was swamped by President Nixon that November, even losing California. Brown later became a legendary state Assembly speaker and ultimately San Francisco mayor.

And the delegate-selection process was “reformed.” It became sort of ho-hum. No big winners, no big losers. Delegates were chosen on a proportional basis, parceled out based on each candidate’s percentage of the vote.

Young Gov. Jerry Brown won the California primary in 1976 and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts did in 1980. So what? One-day headlines. The state couldn’t provide enough oomph.

California moved up its primary for four presidential elections starting in 1996 in a futile attempt to gain more nominating clout. But without a winner-take-all rule, the results were disappointing.

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In 2008, the state’s last early primary, Hillary Clinton did manage to keep her campaign alive for three additional months by winning in California. She beat Barack Obama by 8 percentage points, but won only 38 more delegates than he did.

That race is one reason Clinton had a jump on Sanders this year in California. Another is that Bill Clinton beat Jerry Brown in the 1992 primary and then became only the second Democrat in 11 presidential elections to carry the state that November. Clinton won again easily here in 1996.

So the Clintons have a veteran, loyal, full-service political operation on standby in California. (Full disclosure: my daughter is part of it.)

Clinton started this campaign far ahead in the polls. But Sanders has cut sharply into her lead. In the latest Field Poll, released Friday, Clinton led by only six percentage points, 47% to 41%.

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There’s a huge generation gap, as there has been all over the country. Voters under 40 strongly support Sanders; those over 40 prefer Clinton.

But none of that will matter much — except as bragging points — unless Sanders can pull huge upsets in other large states such as New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Clinton only has to capture about one-third of the delegates available in the remaining state contests.

It’ll be extremely hard for Sanders to play delegate catch-up in California. Nationally, he trails by around 250 pledged delegates. Plus more than 400 ostensibly unpledged super-delegates tilt toward Clinton. She could clinch the nomination here.

It works this way: Unlike Republicans, who award the same number of delegates to each congressional district, Democrats do the politically smart thing. They reward party loyalty. Each district’s delegate number is based on its past support of Democratic presidential candidates.

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco district gets nine delegates. But the Kern County district of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — this state’s top Republican — is allotted only five. Take that, Bakersfield. Even fewer, four, go to the San Joaquin Valley district of Republican Rep. David Valadao.

Clinton and Sanders will divide up the delegates based on their vote totals in each district and statewide. Most delegates, 317, will be awarded by district, and 105 will be allotted statewide. Another 53 will go to party leaders. And there’ll be 71 unpledged so-called super-delegates, a group leaning strongly toward Clinton.

In fact, much of the system leans Clinton’s way.

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One example: Sanders’ strength is among voters under 30. But their numbers are highest in districts coincidentally allowed the fewest delegates, according to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc.

Another: Latinos have been favoring Clinton, and they’re numerous in some districts with larger delegate caches.

However, unlike Republicans, Democrats permit nonpartisans to participate in their primary. And, in the poll, they support Sanders by 10 points.

Regardless, it’ll be uphill for the insurgent without much reward at the top.

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“Our system is designed to give everyone a fair shake” on delegates, says Bob Mulholland, a longtime state Democratic official and activist.

Fair, maybe. But not as much fun.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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