Why Clinton needs to be a Golden State warrior

Hillary Clinton canceled campaign events scheduled for New Jersey this week to head to California. And with good reason.

Clinton is likely to lock down the Democratic nomination on June 7 no matter what happens in the Golden State. But the last thing the front-runner wants is for the final headline of the night — and the big headline the following morning — to be that she lost the final big primary in the most populous state in the nation to Bernie Sanders.

Should Clinton lose — and some polls now suggest the race is tightening — it would embolden Sanders and his ardent supporters to refuse to concede the nomination until the convention.

Hillary Clinton
Steve Marcus | Reuters
Hillary Clinton

They would likely argue that Clinton only "clinched" the nomination when super delegates are counted and that those delegates could look at polls showing Sanders faring better against presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump as a reason to switch sides.

Sanders himself said over the weekend that he would not concede the nomination no matter what happens in California because he could still convince super delegates to switch sides.

"I think you know there's been some discussion that some of the media is going to say the campaign is over, she is the nominee on Tuesday night after the votes come in from New Jersey — that's not accurate," Sanders said. "She has received obviously a whole lot of super delegate support, no question about that. A lot more than I have. But super delegates don't vote until they're on the floor of the Democratic convention. That's when they vote."

But Sanders' argument would become far more strained if he loses both New Jersey and California next Tuesday night and Clinton hits the 2,383 delegates she needs while riding a wave of fresh momentum and positive headlines.

"Clinton wins California, hits magic number for nomination" is a much better headline than "Clinton limping to nomination, falls to Sanders in California."

Democrats who thus far have declined to put pressure on Sanders to get out of the race, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, might begin to do so forcefully if Clinton sweeps California and the voting nears an end with the former secretary of state comfortably ahead in pledged delegates, super delegates and the national popular vote.

Clinton supporters are desperate to end the Sanders threat and begin to unify the party while training all available resources on Trump well before the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in July. The party wants to move quickly to disqualify Trump as a potential commander in chief based while portraying his business success as far less than it appears. They may have fertile ground on the second piece of this effort given that Trump's financial disclosure report appears to inflate both his income and net worth.

But in order to execute this plan, the Clinton campaign and outside groups cannot be spending their time and money trying to hold onto super delegates while Sanders supporters continue to scream that she should not be the nominee.

Democrats also want to take advantage of a period when Trump, who has said he will not attempt to self-finance his general election campaign, may be short of cash and even more reliant than usual on free media. Trump has started raising money but could have a hard time for the next couple of months answering back a scorched-earth Democratic ad campaign against him.

All of this helps explains why Clinton is ditching New Jersey, where she holds a comfortable lead, in favor of barnstorming in California, which will award 475 delegates next week. Win out West and Clinton is golden. Lose and she could get burned.

— Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.