This mom and daughter perfectly capture Bernie's opportunity in California—and his problem

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LOS ANGELES—Elizabeth Smith-Johnson and her daughter, Jacqueline Johnson, will go to the polls together Tuesday for the California primary, but that’s where their unity will end.


Elizabeth, 60, is voting for Hillary Clinton. Jacqueline, 23, will cast her ballot for Sen. Bernie Sanders. And she said there was no point trying to convince her mother to “feel the Bern,” either.

“You don’t convince my mom to do things. She just does what she’s gonna do,” Jacqueline said, laughing as her mom looked on, shaking her head in agreement, during our conversation at a Starbucks in west Los Angeles.

Elizabeth, who works as an actress and theater producer, doesn’t think Sanders is a bad candidate, but she thinks his policies are impractical and too foreign for her to grasp. And Clinton has advantages with Elizabeth that Sanders can never duplicate: history, gender, and Olivia Pope.

“I feel like I’m aligned with her in terms of having a sense of how the world really works,” she told me. “And, to top it off, she’s been in the inner circle. I watch 'Scandal.' They make deals and everybody circles the wagon and posses up when they’re trying to get something through. Hillary’s been on the inside, too. So, a lot of times, we may have all of these ideals, but how do you get them through?”

Jacqueline, who recently graduated Boston University and is working at a Trader Joe's, was only a year old when Bill Clinton was elected president, so she doesn’t share her mother’s fond memories of the Clinton legacy.

“I understand where she is coming from, even if I don’t make the same choices,” she said. “If Hillary becomes president, as a feminist, I’d be proud of that moment, but I’d be slightly disappointed because Hillary Clinton isn’t as progressive as I am. Even with Bernie Sanders, I feel I’m making concessions because I’m even further to the left than he is.”


These two viewpoints capture why young people generally go for Bernie and their parents back Hillary: Sanders’ liberalism versus Clinton’s realism.

Paul Maslin, a political consultant who has advised six presidents and 30 years’ worth of California politicians, says another reason Sanders has such a lock on young people is because they’re not as comfortable with establishment candidates as their parents are.


“He’s talking to them in a very authentic manner. He’s very clear,” Maslin said. “He’s talking about issues like free college tuition, breaking up Wall Street. If you’re young and idealistic, I think that has tremendous appeal. On the flip side, they probably view Hillary Clinton as being a around for a long time—even though Bernie is actually older. She’s become an establishment figure, and I think there is hesitancy to support somebody with that sort of inside association.”

It’s been an anti-establishment year. Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump handily knocked off all the traditional Republican gatekeepers. Sanders, another insurgent, has given Clinton a fight most never expected to last this long. Young, idealistic voters like Jacqueline who have fueled Sanders’ success just may help him win delegate-rich California next week.


According to a Stanford poll released this week, 61 percent of likely voters in California under 30 support Sanders, compared with 39 percent for Clinton. A surge of young support could push Sanders over the top in what has become a very tight race: A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll shows Clinton holding a 49-47 advantage over the Vermont senator, a lead within the poll’s margin of error.


Clinton will almost certainly bank enough delegates on Tuesday to be crowned the presumptive Democratic nominee, no matter what happens in California. But Sanders could use a win here to bolster his strategy—an extremely long shot—of persuading the party insiders known as superdelegates to switch their votes and make him the nominee at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next month.

Hundreds of thousands of voters were registered here between March and May alone, according to the Los Angeles Times. Registrations are up 87% among people 24 and younger and 188% among people 25 to 30, the Times reported. Both figures should favor Sanders, if, of course, those people actually show up to vote.


Even if young people go to the polls in record numbers Tuesday, it won’t be enough to get Sanders the nomination outright. Black women, like Jacqueline’s mother, have been the Democratic Party’s most important voting bloc, and Sanders has never done well with them. Clinton, on the other hand, has black female voters on lock. Sanders’ class-based approach to economic inequality, as far as many black voters are concerned, ignores structural racism.

Even Jacqueline admits that.

“I think young black people have been a little turned off by him because, for a long time, even still, he has this class-over-race rhetoric,” she said. “He really thinks, ‘Oh. If we fix these things, then everybody is going to be lifted up,’ not accounting for racism. So if he has all of these class-based policies, it’s white people who are going to benefit from them the most and other people are going to be left behind. I think he is starting to get that, slowly, and starting to fix that.”


It’s too late for Elizabeth, though. She’s with Clinton.

The former secretary of state’s ideas may not carry the same grandeur as Sanders’ “democratic socialism,” but at least they are more practical, in her mind. Elizabeth has another younger daughter in college and would love to have free tuition as an option. But Clinton’s college tuition plan feels more feasible. In general, Elizabeth believes most of Sanders’ ideas are unrealistic. “On a lot of levels,” she said.


That’s why she is going for Clinton in the end; she says Sanders just doesn’t understand how high-level politics really work, and that concerns her. She can’t afford to invest her vote in idealism that she doesn’t feel will ultimately help her. Above all, Elizabeth believes Clinton is the Democrats’ only shot at winning the White House.

“I really feel that Hillary can beat Donald Trump’s ass,” she said.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.