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A Sanders win in California could mean 'summer of agony' for Clinton

Bernie Sanders speaks during a panel with Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in Palo Alto, Calif., on June 1, 2016.

Bernie Sanders calls it the “big enchilada.”

California, the most delegate-rich state on the Democratic primary calendar, has recently become almost a second home for the Vermont senator as he barnstorms there ahead of Tuesday's primary. In May alone, Sanders' more than two-dozen rallies in the state drew more than 160,000 people. The campaign expects its biggest turnouts this weekend in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“By the time our campaign in California is over on Monday, we will have spoken to a quarter-of-a-million people in California, face to face,” Sanders said Thursday at a news conference in Modesto. “That may well be unprecedented, but that’s the kind of campaign that we are running. It’s a grassroots campaign, it’s going directly to the people and I think that is why we stand an excellent chance to win it on Tuesday.”

Even if that happens, Sanders would still be far from overtaking Hillary Clinton’s commanding lead in pledged delegates and in superdelegates, the party leaders and elected officials who can vote for the candidate of their choice at the Democratic National Convention.

USA TODAY

Sanders Rallies in California Ahead of Primary

Counting her superdelegate support, Clinton is only 71 delegates short of the magic number of 2,383 needed to clinch the nomination, according to the Associated Press. She undoubtedly will reach that number on Tuesday, when voters cast ballots in California (475 delegates) and five other states. After that, only the District of Columbia’s June 14 primary will remain.

But a California victory would keep Sanders’ campaign going and help him make his case to superdelegates that he’s the best candidate to defeat presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump. That would create a “summer of agony” for Clinton leading up to the convention, forcing her to fend off both Trump and Sanders simultaneously, said Brad Bannon, a Democratic pollster and consultant.

“If Sanders loses California, it’s hard for him to tell the superdelegates that ‘I’m the better candidate,’” said Bannon, who has stayed neutral in the race. “Even if he wins California, he’s not going to be the nominee, but he will keep his campaign alive and there will still be a lot of sniping between Sanders and Clinton. That means she can’t focus on what she wants to do, which is win over the Sanders people.”

Clinton leads Sanders in California by only about 6 points, according to aRealClearPolitics average of recent polls. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Pollreleased Thursday showed Sanders only 2 points behind Clinton among California’s likely Democratic electorate.

USA TODAY

New poll shows Clinton leads Sanders by just two points in California

Sanders’ focus on the state hasn’t gone unnoticed by Clinton’s campaign. Clinton, who defeated Barack Obama in the 2008 California primary, changed her schedule to be in California on Thursday rather than in New Jersey, which also holds its primary Tuesday. Clinton's California state director, Buffy Wicks, sent out a May 16 fundraising letter telling supporters that although the primary is “all but over,” “Bernie’s team is working hard to pull off a big upset here to try and make some trouble.”

“We need to be strong enough to take on Bernie’s grassroots army and Donald Trump at the same time,” Wicks wrote.

Clinton has a strong ground game and support from all major Democrats in the state, said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at theUniversity of California, Davis, Center for Regional Change. On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed her, citing her “long experience,” “firm grasp of the issues” and preparedness.

But California has seen an unprecedented surge of newly registered voters – 1.1 million between January and April – driven largely by an easier online registration process launched in 2012, Romero said. Millennials aged 18-34 comprise more than 53% of those voters. That could bode well for Sanders, whose coalition includes young people and independents.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally in San Francisco, Calif., on May 26, 2016.