California is a place of superlatives and extremes — it’s the most populous state in the nation, with the hottest deserts and the tallest trees, the flashiest celebrities and the best avocados. And in terms of pure math, it is Super Tuesday’s largest prize. About 10 percent of the total pledged delegates in the Democratic presidential primary will be up for grabs in California on Tuesday — or, to put it another way, about as many delegates as Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Oklahoma, Utah and Minnesota combined.
But California has often been overlooked in the Democratic primary, stuck in June at the end of a months-long process, in which the state’s millions of votes mostly functioned as a rubber stamp for the winner.1 That changed, though, in 2017, when the California legislature moved its contest up with the hope of giving the state the kind of influence over the process that befits its massive delegate haul. It seemed like this year, California voters could finally get their due.
Except when I arrived in Los Angeles on Wednesday, it didn’t feel much like a presidential primary was underway. And as I drove into the city from the airport, the only political billboards I saw were for local elections, like district attorney or county supervisor. Several presidential candidates had scheduled quick, last-minute trips to California, but the state wasn’t getting more attention than smaller, more geographically manageable Super Tuesday states like Arkansas, Alabama or Colorado.
Look at the polls, and it’s easier to understand why candidates mostly chose to save their energy for other states. According to our average of polls in California, Sen. Bernie Sanders has the support of 33 percent of the state’s voters, with all of the other candidates in a messy, distant scuffle for second. And driving that lead, according to a Los Angeles Times/University of California, Berkeley poll released Friday, is Sanders’s commanding support among some of California’s key voting blocs — Latinos, young people and the very liberal. According to our model,2 he has a 93 percent chance of winning the most votes, and could walk away with more than half of the state’s pledged delegates.
Almost a year ago, Sanders made a risky bet to go big on California. And since then he has steadily ramped up his presence in the state, making a big, long-term investment in winning over its voters. It’s true that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has dropped millions in California over the past few months and vastly outspent his competitors in TV ads. But Sanders, more than any other candidate, has made California a key part of his strategy, relying on the army of volunteers he began to build four years ago, when he lost California to former Sen. Hillary Clinton, 53.4 percent to 45.7 percent.
Sanders’s operation could make him unstoppable in California on Tuesday — especially if it can help him capture the support of voters of color who tended to break for Clinton back in 2016. The question now is whether it’ll work.
“Even more than Nevada or South Carolina, California will demonstrate the degree to which Sanders has successfully expanded his support into communities of color,” said Dan Schnur, a political strategist in California. “That was his biggest obstacle in 2016. The results in California will show if he’s figured out how to overcome it.”
Covering one of the first four states in a presidential primary is a little like entering a weeklong political carnival. The candidates ricochet across the state, hosting concerts and sports events, lunches and town halls, trying to win over undecided voters and turn out their base in the final frantic days before the vote.
True to stereotype, California’s primary has a more laid-back mood. That’s because the state’s massive scale and the way it runs elections are less suited to frenetic, retail politics campaigning. For one thing, many Californians don’t vote on Super Tuesday at all. Most of California’s voters received mail-in ballots in early February. By the time I landed in Los Angeles, more than 750,000 Democrats had already sent their ballots back. For the first time, some early voting centers were also open for more than a week before Super Tuesday. And now, according to Political Data, Inc., a group that tracks early voting in California, 20 percent of Democratic voters who received a mail-in ballot have returned it. Deanna Lepree, a 29-year-old nursing student, told me outside a polling place, where she had just cast her ballot for Sanders, that many of her friends from school had voted already. “After class today, they were talking about how they’d voted, and I thought, ‘Gosh, I’d better get to it,’” she said.
There were no candidates barnstorming up and down the coast. Instead, it was up to the organizers and volunteers to keep stolidly canvassing and phone banking — the way they’d been doing for weeks or even months. And in terms of their presence on the ground, Sanders and Bloomberg have a huge advantage over the other candidates. Sanders has 23 field offices scattered throughout California, according to data gathered by FiveThirtyEight contributor and political scientist Joshua Darr, and Bloomberg has 25.3 The other two candidates with a field presence in California — former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — have only a fraction of that reach, and one of Warren’s four offices has been open for less than a week.
As I started criss-crossing the city to see how the various campaigns were getting out the vote, it was clear that young Californians were a big part of Sanders’s push. He has the support of 61 percent of voters ages 18 to 29, according to the L.A. Times/Berkeley poll, and 53 percent of voters ages 30 to 39 — far more than any other candidate. On the idyllic, leafy campus of the University of California, Los Angeles on Thursday, a group of Sanders’s student supporters had staked out a place on the quad with a table full of “Students for Bernie” stickers and pins and a battered, slightly-too-short cutout of Sanders that the students chipped in to buy for $45 on Amazon. “He’s been through a lot,” said Dylan Portillo, 21, a junior who has the honor of schlepping the Sanders cutout back and forth from his apartment. “People really love taking selfies with him.”
Henry Burke, 21, told me he volunteered for the Sanders campaign in 2016, while he was still in high school. As soon as Sanders announced he was running again, he signed up to help out. “In 2016, we were pretty much running just on enthusiasm,” he said. But this year, he thinks the campaign is more organized and streamlined. He pulled an app out of his pocket to show me how he can quickly look up a voter’s registration status, which he said is especially helpful for students who may not know where they’re registered, or if they’re registered at all.
Outreach to voters of color — particularly Latino voters — has also been an important part of Sanders’s California strategy. On Saturday night, as the results of the South Carolina primary trickled, I stopped by Sanders’s field office in East Los Angeles. The space was buzzing with volunteers and organizers who seemed unperturbed by Biden’s first big win. Every few minutes, they would ring a bell when a canvasser returned with a voter’s mail-in ballot, which the campaign has been collecting to submit on their behalf. Steven Gibson, 64, who volunteered for Sanders in 2016 and now works as a regional field director for the campaign, said that even after months of work in communities of color in Los Angeles, he was surprised by the energy for Sanders in heavily Latino neighborhoods like the one surrounding the field office. “You’ll walk down the street in a Sanders shirt and young black or Latino people will stop you and say, ‘Hey Bernie, I love Bernie!’” Gibson said. “That wasn’t happening in 2016.”
“The Sanders campaign missed some opportunities in California four years ago, I think in part because they didn’t really understand the state,” said Paul Mitchell, a California political consultant and the vice president of Political Data, Inc. He pointed to the campaign’s aggressive outreach to independent voters — who were more likely to support Sanders in 2016 but, thanks to the quirks of California election law, have to jump through extra hoops to vote for the Democratic presidential candidates — as an example of the campaign’s newfound savvy. “This time, they’re focusing on early voters and Latinos and independents. In some ways, this primary feels like a makeup campaign for them.”
Sanders’s lead in the polls is, however, dependent on voters who have historically been less likely to vote — particularly young people, independents and Latinos. According to the L.A. Times/Berkeley poll, slightly more than half (51 percent) of Latinos are now supporting Sanders, up 13 points from January. He also has the support of half of voters who identify as very liberal.
One way to judge the success of his outreach machine is whether he can consolidate support among these groups and convince them to turn out in high numbers. And that’s not an easy task, particularly in a place like Los Angeles, where the presidential primary can easily be forgotten. Many voters told me they weren’t really talking about the election with their friends. “It’s confusing to me, because I think this election is so, so important, but I just don’t think most people are that interested in it,” said Avery Robinson, 21, who is planning to vote for Sanders.
On Friday afternoon, I followed two Sanders volunteers, Jess (who asked that her last name not be used) and Graziela Flores, as they went out door-knocking in a South Los Angeles neighborhood with a mix of black and Latino residents. Back at the local Sanders field office, standing in the backyard of a big, rambling house, an organizer named Justin Lewis had told them not to worry about convincing undecided voters. Their task was to find Sanders supporters and persuade them to go vote — today. “We’re going to be reaching out to people who don’t vote regularly, who might not realize they can vote early,” he said to a group of about 20 volunteers. “Your job is to help give people the inspiration you feel when you go vote.”
It was a hot day, and we wandered down sun-baked streets lined with bungalows, with sleepy dogs basking in front yards. Very few of the voters Jess and Graziela talked to knew that they could vote early. One young man was thrilled to hear that he could vote for Sanders before Tuesday, and said he’d round up his whole family to go that afternoon. But it was a struggle to convince others that voting was worth it. Another man paused by his car and said he’d heard good things about Sanders but wasn’t sure he had time to vote. Jess pressed him, pointing out that the early voting center was just a few blocks away. “Bernie is promising free college and free health care,” she said. “We have to help him win.” He laughed and said he’d promise to try. “I’d say that’s a win,” said Jess, 25, a recent Los Angeles transplant who knocked on doors for Sanders in New York in 2016. “He seemed like he was really going to think about it.”
As in Nevada, where Sanders’s victory in the caucuses was powered in part by strong Latino support, the Sanders campaign has consciously targeted Latinos in California — opening field offices in Latino neighborhoods, hiring Latino organizers and starting their efforts early. Latinos are the largest racial and ethnic group in California, making them a key group to mobilize. They also skew young, which makes them an even more logical target for Sanders, whose coalition in the early states is mostly defined by one thing — its youth. Yet Mindy Romero, a professor at the University of Southern California, says it’s rare for campaigns to do this kind of concerted outreach to Latinos. “Within the Latino community in 2016, [Sanders’s] support wasn’t so high,” she said. “But now he’s the only candidate doing a real ground game in Latino communities and that can send an important message to historically marginalized communities — a sign of trust and respect.”
Sanders’s bet on California was never guaranteed to pay off. California is, in many ways, a presidential primary candidate’s nightmare — you won’t get far with handshakes and meet-and-greets in a state with 20 million registered voters, 200-plus languages and almost 400,000 miles of highways. “Normally in California, the conventional wisdom is, you don’t do grassroots because it doesn’t matter,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP strategist in California who focuses on Latino communities. “It’s throwing money down a rat hole because we’re too big. We’re too diverse. You basically have to set up a 50-state strategy in one state.”
But in the end, the quirks of California’s Democratic primary process — and his rivals’ struggle to break into a clear second place — could end up vindicating Sanders’ choice to focus so heavily on his West Coast prize. The state’s pledged delegates are split into two pools: 144 are reserved for candidates who can crack the 15 percent threshold statewide, and the remaining 271 are divvied up according to the candidates’ performance in the state’s 53 congressional districts. Candidates with fewer resources and some strategic savvy can run up their totals by focusing on districts where their support is strongest, and it’s possible that Biden in particular could improve his standing after his victory in South Carolina. But a strong first-place finish for Sanders and a muddled scrum for second place — with several candidates clustered around the 15 percent threshold — could be, in the words of pollster Mark DiCamillo, a “perfect storm” for Sanders.
“If Sanders is the only candidate who gets significantly above 15 percent, that means he’s not only going to win statewide, he might be the only candidate who gets delegates in every district,” DiCamillo said. “That means he could rack up several hundred delegates just in California. That’s a big deal. And he could do it with less than one-third of the statewide vote.”
That’s all good news for the Sanders campaign in theory. But this year’s primary will tell us a lot about how far a tactile, boots-on-the-ground strategy can go in California. Biden is also popular with voters of color — particularly black voters — and Bloomberg has made some inroads with older Latinos, who tend to be more politically moderate.
The Sanders outreach machine made the difference for at least one voter, though. Dana Goldman, 35, said that he was “99.9 percent sure” that he was voting for Sanders but wasn’t sure whether he was registered or how he could vote. I watched as a Sanders volunteer pulled his phone out of his pocket and gave Goldman the information he needed with a few swipes of his thumb. Goldman, impressed, promised to vote and show up for a “March to the Polls” event the following day. “I was going to maybe follow through with making sure I’m registered to vote, but now that these folks are here and I’m feeling inspired by their energy, it’s like, ‘OK, I’m definitely going to go vote and show up for your thing tomorrow,” he said. “That little bit of outreach — it makes a huge difference.”