WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bernie Sanders, consolidating support from voters on the left, has taken a clear lead in the race for California's huge trove of Democratic convention delegates as the presidential campaign moves toward a critical month of primary contests.
Sanders has been propelled to the top in California by growing support from voters who label themselves "very liberal" -- a shift that has come largely at the expense of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. That very liberal group makes up about one in three Democratic primary voters in the state.
Along with strong backing among Latinos and young voters, backing on the left is enough to give the Vermont senator support from 26% of voters likely to take part in the state's March 3 Democratic primary, according to the latest UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies poll, conducted for the Los Angeles Times. His gains in the state come as several polls in Iowa and New Hampshire -- the states with the first contests of the primary season -- also show Sanders gaining ground.
When the poll last surveyed California voters, in late November, Sanders and Warren were bunched tightly together. Since then, however, he has gained and she has continued to lose ground. The Massachusetts senator now has the support of 20% of likely voters, down from 22% in November and 29% in September.
By contrast to the consolidation on the left, the rest of the state's likely primary voters remain divided among several candidates.
That has hampered former Vice President Joe Biden. He remains the front-runner nationally, but in third place in California, with 15% in the poll.
"California's primary electorate is relatively liberal," said Berkeley political science professor Eric Schickler, co-director of the institute. "The state is more conducive to one of the candidates on the left."
Biden narrowly trails Sanders among voters who call themselves somewhat liberal, moderate or conservative, but runs 33 points behind him among the very liberal.
Sanders, Warren and Biden are the only candidates with enough support currently to win any of the state's delegates to the Democratic nominating convention this summer.
Under state Democratic Party's rules, delegates go to candidates who get at least 15% of the vote statewide or in a congressional district. The rest of the Democratic field remains far below that threshold, in single digits.