Bernie Sanders Builds Big Primary Machine to Win Prized California

·5 min read

(Bloomberg) -- As the Democratic presidential race speeds toward the make-or-break Super Tuesday primaries, Bernie Sanders has built an operation aimed at winning the night’s biggest prize: California.

Sanders’ strong ground game, enviable advertising budget and broad support positions him above his rivals there, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been touting his ability to win but has the smallest organization in California of any major candidate.

Sanders has more campaign offices there than any candidate in the race, including billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, who lives in the state. He’s the only non-billionaire advertising in California and is leading among young voters, liberals and Latinos, who could make up one-fourth of the Democratic electorate in the state.

“We have been knocking on doors for months in places where folks have never had visits before,” said Anna Bahr, California spokeswoman for the Sanders campaign. “We invested early and deeply here. We have offices up and down the Central Valley, which is a historically overlooked part of the state. We have made a particular effort among working-class communities and communities of color.”

Sanders has the largest ground game in California, with 20 campaign offices. By comparison, Bloomberg has 11 offices and 220 staffers in the state; Elizabeth Warren has three offices and 40 staffers and Pete Buttigieg has eight paid staffers and no offices. Biden also does not yet have an office in California. He has a state director and hopes to have more than 20 other staffers in place in the coming days.

Sanders’ efforts will give the self-described democratic socialist a leg up heading into Super Tuesday on March 3, when California awards 10% of the delegates needed to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sanders, who is tied with Buttigieg in incomplete Iowa caucus counting, is polling ahead of his rivals in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Three recent polls show him leading the field in California, with support surging to 24% to 27% of likely Democratic voters.

Biden, by contrast, drew support from 15% of voters in a poll released Jan. 28 by the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, meaning he’s “right at the margin of getting delegates at the statewide level” but could miss out on delegates in many congressional districts, said Mark DiCamillo, director of polling there.

“Sanders has the advantages of being on the ballot four years ago and having had people on the ground for some period of time,” said Mark Baldassare, president and survey director for the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank and polling organization. “He has advantages in California that other candidates don’t have.”

Sanders also has the money to focus on staying competitive in early states while still investing in his California operation. He announced on Thursday that he’d raised $25 million in January alone and planned to spend $5.5 million in Super Tuesday states, including California. That will add to his campaign’s $2.5 million advertising buy in California and Texas last week, including ads in both English and Spanish.

That’s far less than the spending planned by Bloomberg, who is staking his campaign on Super Tuesday states and beyond. Bloomberg has spent $35 million on ads in California, yet had just 6% support among likely California voters in a recent state poll. But if Biden continues to fare poorly, centrist voters may turn to a candidate like Bloomberg or Buttigieg over the progressive Sanders. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

During campaign appearances in Iowa last week, Sanders went so far as to predict victory in the Golden State.

“I think we’re going to win California and many other states on Super Tuesday,” Sanders said.Part of the reason for the Vermont senator’s confidence arises from rules governing the California Democratic primary, DiCamillo said. Delegates in California are awarded on the basis of a statewide vote and by votes in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts, and a candidate must draw at least 15% of the vote both statewide and in any given district to qualify for delegates.With January polls showing statewide support for Sanders in the mid-20% range, he’s likely to qualify for delegates both statewide and in the vast majority of the state’s congressional districts, DiCamillo added.”He could get a 300-delegate margin in California,” DiCamillo said. “We’re talking about a major victory. He could literally pile up a plurality of 300 voter-awarded delegates.”In the Berkeley Institute of Government Studies poll, Sanders had support from 38% of likely Latino voters, 41% of those describing themselves as “very liberal” and 54% of voters under the age of 30, underscoring particular points of strength. Sanders also has support from organized labor that includes endorsements from the Los Angeles teachers’ union and California university system employees.

Also benefiting Sanders may be his campaign’s experience with particularities of the California primary, such as its flood of early voting and its requirement that precincts allow voters whose signatures are sloppy or don’t appear to match those on file be allowed to re-sign them even after the election is over so their votes can still be counted.

Remembering 2016

Hillary Clinton and Sanders battled over California in 2016, when she won 254 pledged delegates to his 221. Because the California primary wasn’t until June of that year, she was already heavily favored to become the nominee. This year, California is among 14 states and territories that vote on March 3, giving the most populous U.S. state far more importance in shaping the race.“I think Bernie’s folks were burned in 2016 by not having people who understood the intricacies of the California election system,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., a bipartisan voter data company. “This time, the way they’re organizing is an indication of having learned their lesson.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeffrey Taylor in San Francisco at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at, John Harney

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