California—the home of the next big Democratic primary–may be the Golden State, but many Democratic insiders seem worried their chances against Donald Trump are already tarnished. While the national horse race has indeed temporarily narrowed, it seems unlikely that Bernie Sanders is the cause, or that Democratic primary is causing Hillary Clinton lasting damage.

Polls show Democrats are more optimistic than one might expect during a supposed contentious primary. The latest CBS/New York Times poll shows a full 80 percent of Democrats nationally feel “hopeful” about the future of their party, compared to 55 percent of Republicans who say the same about their own party. And while Democrats are divided on whether the party is divided (48 percent “divided” versus 50 percent “united”), Republicans are nearly unanimous on their intra-party rancor (84 percent “divided”). In this case agreement is no prize.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Spencer Platt | Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Spencer Platt | Getty Images

Comparing the same poll’s results to an earlier 2008 CBS/NYT poll suggests there’s actually even less Democratic division today than in our last competitive primary. While slightly more than a quarter (28 percent) of Sanders voters say they won’t support Clinton if she’s the nominee, slightly more (35 percent) of 2008 Clinton voters said at the time they would not support Obama. That the party coalesced in 2008 doesn’t automatically mean it will again in 2016, but it certainly serves as a good reminder of how temporarily fractious primaries can be.

In fact other data further suggests the current divisions are not just temporary, they’re overblown. In the same recent poll, over eight in ten Democrats say Clinton will be able to unite the party, compared to just two-thirds saying the same about Sanders. And while much is made of the supposed lack of Democratic enthusiasm behind her, Clinton trails Sanders in “enthusiastic support” by single digits – hardly the stuff of party panic.

So it’s Trump—the candidate who cruised through his primary with record turnout—who is damaged today. According to Gallup, Trump’s favorable ratings are lower among Republicans than the ratings of past nominees, and half of his own party’s base wishes for a different nominee. The CBS/NYT poll shows fewer than two-thirds of Republicans predict unity behind their candidate. And, amazingly, a quarter of Republicans think a Trump presidency will “make the U.S. image in the world worse” (almost no Democrats offer this view about Clinton.)

By contrast, Democrats agree that the long primary is not only not damaging, it’s helpful. The latest national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found a plurality of Democrats say the contest has been good for the party. In their 2008 polling, more felt the primary was bad for the party. The CBS/NYT poll also found far more Democrats are finding this contest helpful than in 2008.

But even a civil, “helpful” primary takes up candidate time, campaign resources, and press oxygen—so, why do so many feel it’s been a good thing? Likely with more states in play more voters feel part of the process. So a more democratic Democratic process. And more attention on the primary means more attention to some of the issues progressives care about, like health care, college affordability, income inequality and the power of special interests.

Hand-wringing about party divisions, it seems, has the potential to create exactly what we fear. Instead we can simultaneously celebrate the diversity and enthusiasm of Democratic opinion and recognize the very clear advantages Clinton has (and—let’s be honest—has always had). No matter what happens in California, it’s the job of all Democrats to come together, and turn our attention to the monster banging on the door, hawking scam colleges, stiffing veterans, screaming at the press and insulting the electorate. Despite Trump being damaged and disliked by even his own ranks, the mere possibility he can become president is just too serious to do anything other than unite.


Margie Omero for CNBC, 6/3/16


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