On Eve of 2020, San Francisco Becomes Democratic Battleground

Nicolas Greamo, Writer

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San Francisco is well-known for being a liberal stronghold. Yet, with a large and divisive field of Democratic candidates emerging and a grueling primary on the horizon, a political storm might soon brew over the city where 84% of the residents voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The reasons for San Francisco’s current political alignment are diverse and complex. Although cities tend to attract those who hold left-leaning views—young people, low-income workers and immigrants—it has grown to become one of the country’s liberal enclaves. A major center for the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, as its reputation for liberalism grew, many progressive groups found refuge in the city. That was the case of the LGBTQ migration to the Castro, a consequence of the gay liberation movement in the 1970s and 1980s. These new inhabitants of the city also tended to hold more liberal beliefs, further shifting San Francisco politics leftward.

These factors led to the city becoming a Democratic stronghold. With a crowded primary soon approaching, however, San Franciscans will now have to make a choice that could lead to victory or defeat in the general election.

Currently, 25 Democrats are registered to compete for the party’s presidential nomination. The searing political climate has inflamed tensions between the Democratic establishment and a more progressive new generation. In 2016, these internal divisions first became apparent with the pre-candidacy of democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In San Francisco, Sanders barely lost, winning about 45% of the city’s vote to Clinton’s 53%.

In 2020, however, the tide has turned in both the Bay Area and the nation. The current front-runner is once again an establishment figure, former Vice President Joe Biden, who has positioned himself as a political moderate and a compromiser. Still, his once commanding lead in national polls has narrowed significantly after the first Democratic debates, during which Biden was confronted by Sen. Kamala Harris of California about his opposition to desegregation busing and his past cooperation with segregationist senators.

In the aftermath of the debates, support for California-native Harris has surged by more than 8% nationally. Biden, meanwhile, has plunged by about 10%, although the former vice president continues to maintain a lead of between 3% and 7%.

In California, however, Biden’s political future is in a more dire situation. While no primary polling in the state has been done after the debates, Biden’s lead in pre-debate state polls stood at about 24% while his support in pre-debate national polls had never slipped below 30%.

As the California primary approaches, Biden faces a strong field of candidates. Along with Harris, who will surely benefit from her relationship with her home state, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sanders are also polling strongly, both nationally and in California.

However, the Democratic establishment in California has maintained its power during a period when national support appears to be in decline. Major establishment figures, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and longtime California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have been reluctant to cede their positions to more liberal candidates.

In the 2018 midterm elections, Feinstein defeated a challenge from the left by Kevin de Léon, the former president pro tempore of the California state Senate, by a margin of nearly 30 percentage points.

A loss in California, one of the most integral states for Democrats to win in the Electoral College, would be damaging for both Biden and the Democratic establishment. Defeat in one of the most liberal places in the country, however, may also signal a major shift towards a newer, more radical future for the Democratic Party.

Despite the political chaos, the Bay Area remains calm. And yet, there is something brewing on the horizon.

Even though California is used to earthquakes, perhaps it is an emerging political cataclysm that will wreak havoc on the Golden State’s political system. Or maybe it is a golden opportunity for meaningful change in an era of incrementalism.

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On Eve of 2020, San Francisco Becomes Democratic Battleground