Sanders’ organizing v. Bloomberg’s ads: California to test diverging 2020 strategies

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Bernie Sanders’ campaign is expressing high confidence about a substantial victory in California, the Super Tuesday primary state that will serve as the ultimate test case for how far Michael Bloomberg’s money can carry him in the Democratic presidential race.

With a whopping 415 delegates at stake, it’s also the contest that may hand Sanders the insurmountable delegate lead his opponents are so worried about — even if it takes days or weeks to realize due to a delayed count of mail-in ballots.

While Sanders has been intensely organizing since his 2016 primary loss here — the campaign knocked on 1 million doors just last weekend— the multi-billionaire Bloomberg has swarmed the airwaves in a matter of a few months, spending more than $75 million on local California TV and radio, according to ad tracking firm Medium Buying. That’s more than ten times what Sanders has spent, and it doesn’t even include the additional national and digital ad buys that permeate here.

Sanders’ campaign seems largely unfazed by Bloomberg’s shock-and-awe approach, which can be seen on electronic billboards along highways and even beaming from the side of the 73-story Wilshire building in downtown Los Angeles.

“It only offers more of a contrast,” said Rafael Navar, Sanders’ California state director. “Billionaires have tried to buy elections before. It’s never worked in California.”

In an interview, Navar said the campaign expects to be viable for delegates in all 53 congressional districts and is projected to finish “at the top in a majority” of them. A double-digit Sanders win is “something that is possible,” he added.

By sheer force of resources — including more than 300 staff and 25 field offices —Bloomberg looks to be Sanders’ fiercest competition. Sanders has 105 paid staff with 22 offices, but is bolstered by a volunteer army that numbers in the thousands.

A Capitol Weekly evaluation of the earliest voters, who tend to be older, richer and whiter than the electorate as a whole, found Bloomberg in second place, trailing Sanders by 7 points.

But the Bloomberg campaign has tempered expectations for its performance here, as March 3 will be the first time the late entrant into the presidential race appears on the ballot.

“Super Tuesday is our first crack, right? I think for us, it’s to show that momentum going into March 10, March 17,” said Chris Masami Myers, who left his role as executive director of the state Democratic Party to helm Bloomberg’s statewide operation. “It is the biggest operation in California primary history for a presidential campaign. I’ve been a part of the California Democratic Party for 20 plus years. Never seen anything like this.”

California will distribute nearly a third of all delegates available in Tuesday’s 16 primaries and caucuses, and more than double the number that will be allocated through the first four nominating contests. Delivering a resounding defeat to Bloomberg’s monied machine here would certainly sweeten the victory for Sanders, who has treated California like an early state for months, logging more public campaign visits here than any of his rivals. (Pete Buttigieg has traveled to the state more often, but for fundraisers.)

Sanders will return Sunday for rallies in San Jose and Los Angeles, accompanied by Public Enemy Radio. In 2016, California was the final state on the primary calendar and Sanders’ 7-point loss to Hillary Clinton ended his insurgent bid. This time, it could all but seal his fate as the Democratic nominee-in-waiting.

“I suspect Bernie will grab the lionshare of delegates based on recent polling — probably 250-plus,” said John Shallman, an Encino-based Democratic consultant. “The key will be if Sanders can outperform the combined delegate count of the so-called moderates.”

To be eligible for delegates, a candidate must net at least 15 percent support in a congressional district, a bubble in which several of the contenders are precariously resting on. Sanders aides see the potential of three candidates being eligible for delegates, but believe the South Carolina result will weigh on late-breaking voters who choose to be with a winner.

As of Thursday, a million Democrats had returned ballots, according to Political Data Inc., just 15 percent of the estimated total vote.

“Voters are waiting to see if someone is going to coalesce,” said Buffy Wicks, Clinton’s California state director in 2016. “I think people are waiting to see who’s the alternative to Bernie.”

A South Carolina victory on Saturday could resuscitate Joe Biden’s slumping standing in the state. Largely absent from the airwaves due to limited resources, Biden last visited California on Jan. 10.

He’s largely betting on longtime familiarity and goodwill, some of which was shown when his wife, Jill Biden, attended a listening session Wednesday night in Los Angeles with LGBT Hispanics about the health issues plaguing their community. The former second lady and her husband received praise for championing the Marriage Equality Act and for their efforts toward combating cancer, which was relayed as a growing problem in the transgender community due to HPV infections.

“If you look at people who are affiliated with presidential campaigns, you’re the first person really that currently has come out to visit a Latino gay organization . . . and that means a lot,” said Richard Zaldivar, the exective director of the nonprofit who hosted Biden.

“I just hope that you know,” she told the group, “Joe Biden, I mean, his heart is with you. I think he wants you to know that and I do think you feel that.”

Conversely, lackluster South Carolina finishes could undermine Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, who has seen a polling bounce after a pair of fiery debate performances. The Massachusetts senator will trek to East Los Angeles on Monday night -- her first visit to California since December, leaving her well-regarded but still unproven field organization to shoulder the tedious get-out-the-vote work.

On a backyard patio in Riverside, an Inland Empire city about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, 24-year-old Warren organizer Dani Dichter spent a recent evening using sign language to communicate with ten residents who have lost their power to hear.

“Would the candidate be visiting?,” one inquired. It could happen but it wasn’t on the schedule yet, Dichter replied.

After a 45-minute conversation that covered topics such as Warren’s disability plan and how to increase deaf representation in the federal government, the attendees opened up their phones and laptops and texted potential voters about why they should support Warren.

“I tend not to get involved in politics,” said Lisa Kay Price, one of the deaf attendees, afterward through the Warren interpreter. “But with the outreach, it’s easier.”

Still, there are limits to the organizing effects in such a gargantuan and diverse state with ten major media markets and 20 million registered voters using multiple languages. The state requires non-partisan voters — who outnumber Republicans — to take the extra step of requesting a Democratic ballot in order to participate, a hurdle that the Sanders’ campaign has flagged as an issue and has been working vigorously to overcome.

But perhaps most difficult of all is snagging media attention, especially in entertainment-obsessed Los Angeles.

“When you do an event in Los Angeles, it’s like ... crickets. It wouldn’t be on the news” said Paul Mitchell, the vice president of Political Data Inc. “Elizabeth Warren could be next door and you’d never know about it. Unless she’s like dancing with Cardi B onstage, nobody cares.”

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