Poll finds deadlock with Bernie Sanders ahead of June 7 primary
California is shaping up as a showdown between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, with Tuesday’s primary threatening to prevent Mrs. Clinton from a strong finish to the long primary season that would make it easier for her to unify the party ahead of the general election.
Mrs. Clinton cut short a campaign swing this week in New Jersey, where she is favored in its Tuesday primary, so that she could spend more time stumping in California. The campaign also announced on Wednesday that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, would be in the state from Thursday through Monday, helping to reach more voters.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll found the former secretary of state and the Vermont senator deadlocked in the state, raising the possibility of a win by Mr. Sanders, which would give him confidence to carry his campaign into the party’s Philadelphia convention next month.
Mrs. Clinton leads the Vermont senator by just two percentage points among likely Democratic primary voters, 49% to 47%, well within the survey’s margin of error. The poll signals a closer contest than was expected just a few weeks ago.
Mrs. Clinton essentially has the nomination locked up, thanks to her lead in pledged delegates and the strong support of superdelegates, who are mostly Democratic elected officials. Because pledged delegates are awarded proportionate to the vote, Mrs. Clinton can lose the California primary and others on June 7 and still win the final delegates she needs to clinch the presidential nomination.
Currently, Mrs. Clinton has 2,312 delegates, or 71 short of the 2,383 needed, according to the Associated Press’s tally. Mr. Sanders has 1,545, or 838 short of a majority of convention delegates. Nearly 700 delegates will be allocated on June 7, including 475 pledged delegates from California.
Recent polls in California have produced widely varying pictures of the Democratic race, with some finding Mrs. Clinton holding a double-digit lead. Voter preferences may be changing as the election nears, accounting for the differing results.
The fate of Mr. Sanders’s presidential bid rides heavily on the outcome in California, the last major contest of the primary season. The Vermont senator has underscored the importance of the state by campaigning in California every day since May 21.
A win in California would bolster Mr. Sanders’s argument to the superdelegates, who could switch their allegiance, that he is the party’s stronger candidate. It could also strengthen Mr. Sanders’s hand in pushing for a party platform that better reflects his liberal agenda.
As the contest shifts to the general election, a Clinton loss in California would cast a shadow over her campaign while she tries to unify the Democratic Party after an unexpectedly competitive—and divisive—primary process. In particular, Mrs. Clinton needs to make inroads among the younger voters and independent voters who have fueled Mr. Sanders’s campaign, some of whom might back presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in November.
On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton will be in San Diego to deliver a speech that is expected to challenge the foreign-policy positions laid out by Mr. Trump. On the trail recently, Mrs. Clinton has directed her fire at Mr. Trump, not at Mr. Sanders.
The new Journal/NBC News/Marist poll found Mr. Sanders building big margins among younger voters, as he has in other states. Among Democratic primary voters age 18 to 29, the poll found, 80% favor Mr. Sanders, while Mrs. Clinton garners almost twice his support among primary voters age 45 and older.
Mr. Sanders also outpaces the Democratic front-runner by a wide margin, 72% to 28%, among those voters who would be participating for the first time.
“We are seeing a familiar pattern in what is the last major pre-convention collision between Clinton and Sanders,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “Age is the story in this California toss-up. Sanders inspires younger or first-time voters, and Clinton relies upon those who are older or have participated in the last.”
The good news for Mrs. Clinton is that it looks like she has already banked a larger share of the early vote. She leads among those Californians who have already cast ballots, 58% to 41%. She also beats Mr. Sanders in the state’s two biggest urban centers, the Bay Area and Los Angeles County.
Mr. Sanders holds a slight lead, 49% to 46%, among Latino voters, who account for more than a quarter of likely Democratic primary voters. Some of these interviews were conducted in Spanish.
The Clintons are well-known figures in California, with broad support in the entertainment and high-technology worlds. But Mr. Sanders has gained traction in the state as voters have gotten to know the self-described democratic socialist.
“The Democratic Party in California is probably the most liberal Democratic Party in the country,” said John Burton, chairman of California’s party.
Mr. Sanders has gone all-in, packing his schedule with appearances up and down the state in the run-up to the primary. On Wednesday, at a news conference in Spreckles, Calif., Mr. Sanders criticized his rival for not supporting a nationwide ban on “fracking.”
Mrs. Clinton has taken the position that she would support “fracking” under limited circumstances, and that, at present, the practice is not “sufficiently regulated” in certain locations.
The poll casts doubt on Mr. Trump’s recent claim that he will make California competitive in the fall. Mrs. Clinton leads him by 24 percentage points, 55% to 31%, with 6% undecided and 8% saying they would not vote for either. Mr. Sanders leads Mr. Trump by an even wider margin, 62% to 28%, with 10% saying they were either undecided or not supportive of either.
In the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, Democrat Kamala Harris, the state’s attorney general, leads the field as the preferred pick of 37% of primary voters. U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a fellow Democrat, is in a solid second place, with 19%.
California’s open primary system allows the top two finishers in next week’s Senate primary to advance to the general election.
California is one of six states to hold Democratic nominating contests on June 7, along with Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota. The District of Columbia will officially close out the primary season the following week when it holds its contest on June 14.
The poll of 557 likely Democratic primary voters was conducted May 29-31 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Political analysts have documented a surge in Democratic voter registration this year, a development that could prove helpful to Mr. Sanders.
Democratic voter registration in California more than tripled between Jan. 1 and the registration deadline on May 23, compared to a comparable period in the 2012 presidential race, according to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., a bipartisan voter data company in California.
Overall, more than 950,000 Democratic voters registered during this period, he said.