By Annie Karni
June 16, 2016
It was late May, the delegate math was insurmountable, yet Bernie Sanders was showing no signs of giving up. His campaign had bet everything on the June 7 California primary, hoping a win in the nation’s most populous and diverse state would convince superdelegates his candidacy was still viable.
On Sunday, May 29, just ahead of Clinton’s planned visit to New Jersey, Clinton’s senior strategist Joel Benenson and other top officials advised a shift in strategy: With the campaign’s internal polling showing a double-digit blowout on the horizon in New Jersey, it was time to pull up stakes there and go for the big win in California.
Clinton operatives ripped up the candidate's schedule, canceled her planned trip to campaign in Newark and decided to camp out in Southern California for the entire week leading up to the June primary. They also scrapped plans for Bill Clinton to campaign in Puerto Rico so he could help move votes on the West Coast.
“Sanders had called California the most important state,” Benenson said in an interview. “We thought, why not make sure we win it as big as we can? It never looked below a 16-point win in New Jersey. There was no reason to go to there."
The decision paid off. Clinton won California by 13 points, a margin so wide networks projected the victory even with several million mail-in votes uncounted. Sanders had already been reduced to a back-burner concern after Clinton carried Pennsylvania and three other states on April 26. But that pot kept bubbling over as he posted victories in Indiana, Oregon and West Virginia, embarrassing Clinton while stoking up his supporters with claims of a rigged process.
California, the place where she could have crawled over the finish line, ended up being the place where Clinton finally turned things around, ending once and for all her two-front war. Her victory there came just five days after her San Diego speech eviscerating presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump as unfit to be commander-in-chief — part of a 10-day run that is viewed by Clinton allies as the most successful period of Clinton’s political career.
But that high-water mark, which finally enabled her to make a full pivot to Trump, came after one of the most trying stretches for the campaign. Since her April 26 victories, Clinton had stopped campaigning against — or even mentioning — Sanders on the trail, instead turning her focus to the GOP rival on the horizon. But she was still locked in a primary, fighting opponents on the left and the right, while her Republican foe was steadily consolidating the party behind him.
“When voters realize there's a choice between two candidates with two very complete different visions of America, she shines,” said Tom Nides, who worked under Clinton at the State Department and remains close to the campaign. “When it's Secretary Clinton against Secretary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, it becomes muddy in people's minds.”
And May was rain-boots muddy for Clinton.
Campaign operatives don’t view May as a low point — that designation is saved for the dark days of February, when Clinton barely eked out a win in Iowa and then lost by a 20-point landslide to Sanders in New Hampshire. A close second is the night of March 8, when Sanders won Michigan in a stunning upset that threatened to change the narrative of the race.
Since March 15, however, when Clinton swept Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri, the campaign has viewed itself as on a glide path to the nomination. Then things got complicated in the six weeks leading up to Clinton’s June 7 California victory — allies were nervous that Clinton was unprepared to take on Trump, incapable of unifying her own party or putting Sanders' threat to bed, and still handicapped by the ongoing investigation into her email use at the State Department.
That Sanders wouldn’t go quietly into the night was an ongoing frustration to Clinton donors and at the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters, where aides would turn up the television volume when Sanders’ bellicose campaign manager Jeff Weaver appeared, rolling their eyes and bracing themselves for the latest onslaught.
Even with no realistic path forward, Sanders was still arguing into June that it would be a “disaster” for the party to nominate Clinton, and criticizing his Democratic rival for the foreign government donations accepted by the Clinton Foundation while she was secretary of state.
For weeks after May 4, when Trump became his party’s presumptive nominee and GOP leaders and voters seemed to be falling in line with him, the Democratic party appeared deeply fractured.
“The frustration was this idea that we were mathematically done, but there was still some question in people’s minds of whether it was really done, when we all knew it was done,” said one Clinton ally close to the campaign.
“It was difficult to pivot to the general without the risk of looking like you were disrespecting Bernie, his supporters and the process,” added Mo Elleithee, director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and a veteran of Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “It's a challenging moment to be in.”
The release of 83-page State Department’s Inspector General’s report on May 25, which criticized Clinton for never seeking legal approval for her private email server set-up, brought back another opponent — Clinton herself.
While there was no smoking gun in the report, it only elevated Clinton’s trust issues at a moment in the race where she was tied with Trump in terms of her unfavorable ratings — 57 percent of registered voters said they held unfavorable views of the two candidates, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The difficulty of the two-front war was perhaps best epitomized the following day, when Sanders began pushing for a debate — against Trump. The Clinton camp had declined to participate in a Fox News debate with Sanders ahead of the California primary.
In response, Sanders tried to get someone else to play. "I am delighted that @realDonaldTrump has agreed to debate,” Sanders tweeted on May 26 after Trump joked on Jimmy Kimmel Live he would take on the Vermont senator for charity. “Let’s do it in the biggest stadium possible.”
A debate between one party’s presumptive nominee and another party’s likely loser was seen as a joke by some Democrats. But the notion that Sanders was actually pushing for it enraged Clinton campaign operatives who saw it as the height of his attempts to damage the party while they were trying to begin the process of unification.
At the time, Clinton had also fallen back into her worst habits. She went radio silent, avoiding questions from the reporters that travel with her. Meanwhile, Trump dominated the headlines, calling into television morning shows, sitting down for interviews with reporters at his Trump Tower office, defending his decision not to release his tax returns and denying that he once posed as his own spokesperson under the alias "John Miller."
After May 5, when Clinton took less than three minutes of questions from reporters at a campaign stop in Stone Ridge, Virginia, Clinton did not take questions from her traveling press until after her June 7 primary win.
“There were some bad moments,” admitted Elleithee. “The distraction of the IG report took them off message, and that's going to happen any time that topic comes up.”
In terms of fundraising, however, May remained a strong month. Clinton raised $27 million last month, a slight increase from the previous month, and ended the month with $42 million in the bank, compared to Sanders’ $6 million.
Internal polling suggested another reason not to panic: it showed Republican consolidation, but no real Democratic erosion.
One concern, however, remained: that the number of voters who have negative views of both party’s top candidates was unprecedented — and that it was too early to tell who ends up just sitting out the election and staying home rather than voting.
Clinton’s turning point — her take-down of Trump in a speech in San Diego on June 2 — came about in reaction to that worrisome Republican consolidation. Campaign operatives interviewed for this story said they realized they needed to do something because Republican Party leaders like Rep. Paul Ryan backing Trump were “normalizing” him to rank and file voters.
Clinton realized she needed to drive home the point that there was nothing normal about Trump.
“I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants,” Clinton said in her San Diego speech, a stinging line that relieved Democrats who worried Clinton was unprepared for a scrappy fight against an unconventional candidate. Electing Trump, she said, would be a “historic mistake.”
“We didn’t get knocked off our game on anything happening day-by-day,” said Benenson, looking back on the trying days of May. “We knew we’d end up on June 7 with the majority of pledged delegates. We didn’t chase what was going on every day.” The hardest thing, campaign officials said, was not responding to Sanders’ attacks.
Since June 7, however, it hasn't mattered. Clinton has benefited from the consolidation of her own party. President Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden all endorsed Clinton on the same day.
And the polls show a post-San Diego bump. A Bloomberg Politics poll released Tuesday showed Clinton with a 12-point margin over Trump, leading him among likely voters, 49 percent to 37 percent.
On Tuesday, after Clinton won the final Washington, D.C. primary, she and Sanders emerged from a 90-minute meeting in Washington, D.C., with both issuing statements hinting at a growing unified front against Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump seemed to be losing ground. His unforced error on Judge Gonzalo Curiel — questioning the “Mexican heritage” of the judge overseeing the Trump University lawsuit as a reason he could not oversee a fair trial — reignited the party tensions that Clinton operatives assumed were behind him.
Meanwhile, Clinton has continued to subject Trump to a “commander-in-chief test,” including after the mass shooting in Orlando last weekend, offering a point-by-point rebuttal of his inflammatory comments after the massacre.
“Hillary and her campaign have more than found their footing,” said Patti Solis Doyle, her 2008 campaign manager. “They have learned to effectively go after Donald Trump by using his own words against him and then contrasting them with her ideas and vision for the country. In addition, the Democratic party has seamlessly and without drama come together. The last 10 days could not have gone better for Hillary.”
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