How Bernie’s Strategy of Building Relationships with Young People and Latinos Paid Off in California

Inside the campaign’s California organizing strategy.

Nuala Bishari

Sen. Bernie Sanders appears at a campaign rally at the Pasadena Convention Center on May 31, 2019 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders secured vic­to­ry in California’s pri­ma­ry elec­tion Tues­day. Min­utes after the first wave of results was released at 8:00 p.m., the Asso­ci­at­ed Press called the race for Sanders. His lead con­tin­ued, and as of Wednes­day morn­ing, he’d secured 33.6% per­cent of the vote, to For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden’s 24.9%.

On election day, Caballer-Christenson was part of a large bilingual group that met at a nearby train station, and dispersed into the Fruitvale neighborhood to knock on doors the campaign had already hit before.

As votes con­tin­ue to be count­ed, the dis­tri­b­u­tion of del­e­gates isn’t final, yet. But NBC News pre­dicts that Biden gained 458 del­e­gates on Super Tues­day, bring­ing his total win so far to 511. As of Wednes­day it appears Sanders won 399 new del­e­gates, bump­ing him up to 459.

With 415 del­e­gates — the most in the nation — Cal­i­for­nia was a key play­er in this year’s Super Tues­day. But although Sanders won the state, the elec­tions didn’t go off with­out a hitch. Biden won 10 state pri­maries, mak­ing a strong come­back after lack­lus­ter results in Iowa and New Hamp­shire. In addi­tion to Cal­i­for­nia, Sanders won Utah and Col­orado, though lost del­e­gate-heavy Texas to Biden despite ini­tial results show­ing him in the lead.

Sanders’ cam­paign for pres­i­dent has honed in on a valu­able but unpre­dictable vot­er base. Instead of spend­ing ener­gy try­ing to flip exist­ing vot­ers, his cam­paign tar­get­ed non­vot­ers” — just-reg­is­tered young vot­ers, non-reg­is­tered vot­ers, spo­radic vot­ers and peo­ple who don’t turn out for pri­ma­ry elections.

The Sanders cam­paign has been on the ground in Cal­i­for­nia since the sum­mer of 2019, build­ing rela­tion­ships in low-income com­mu­ni­ties and with peo­ple of col­or. There are 22 cam­paign offices scat­tered across the state, pri­mar­i­ly in work­ing-class and Lati­no neigh­bor­hoods.­­ His staff reflects the mis­sion: Three of the six Cal­i­for­nia area direc­tors are Lati­no, as­ is the state direc­tor of the cam­paign, Rafael Návar.

The issues Sanders stands by — Medicare for All, the elim­i­na­tion of stu­dent debt, free col­lege — res­onate for many, but invest­ing immense time and resources into turn­ing out non­vot­ers is risky. You can get them on board, but will they actu­al­ly hit the polls?

Results are still com­ing in, but the results of Sanders’ strat­e­gy so far look good. It appears he’s secured 49% of California’s pow­er­ful Lati­no vote, which accounts for 30% of the vot­ing pow­er statewide. Young Lati­no vot­ers — ages 18 to 29 — were his biggest sup­port base in that demo­graph­ic, with 84% per­cent cast­ing their vote for Sanders, accord­ing to the New York Times. California’s Black vot­ers, how­ev­er, mirrore­d the rest of the coun­try in their sup­port for Biden: he got 38% of their vote to Sanders’ 18%.

As pre­dict­ed, Sanders per­formed well with young vot­ers, secur­ing 68% of the vote from peo­ple ages 18 to 24, and 48% of vot­ers ages 25 to 29. But exit polls show a wor­ry­ing trend: Youth turnout was down from 2016 in North Car­oli­na, Vir­ginia, Ten­nessee, Ver­mont and Alaba­ma. And while young peo­ple tend to lean toward Sanders, he saw few­er votes from that demo­graph­ic in many of those states. His per­for­mance with young vot­ers in North Car­oli­na, South Car­oli­na, and Vir­ginia appears to have dropped from 2016 to 2020.

California’s votes are still being count­ed. Jon Jacobo, the campaign’s Cal­i­for­nia Lati­no Press Sec­re­tary, says he was opti­mistic watch­ing the results roll in on Tues­day night.

The under-30 sup­port in the Lat­inx com­mu­ni­ty for Sanders was insane,” he said after the cam­paign declared vic­to­ry. But there’s a lot of data still emerg­ing which the cam­paign plans to study closely.

I’m real­ly inter­est­ed to look at the cross tags with the old­er folks, and see if the same gen­er­a­tional divide with the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty in, say, South Car­oli­na is sim­i­lar to what you’ll find in the younger and old­er com­mu­ni­ty here,” Jacobo says. There’s a lot to process and look into, but so far I’m pret­ty happy.”

And, the ver­dict is still out on how many new vot­ers hit the polls for Sanders on Tues­day. While the exit polls prove that his campaign’s on-the-ground efforts to engage and turn out Lati­no and young vot­ers was not in vain, the bat­tle to get non­vot­ers to the polls was not easy.

Ali­cia Caballero-Chris­ten­son, 34, was door knock­ing for Sanders in Fruit­vale, Calif. at 7:00 a.m. Tues­day. She’s a pro­fes­sor in Mex­i­can and Latin Amer­i­can Stud­ies at a local com­mu­ni­ty col­lege, and while at this time of year she’s nor­mal­ly on sab­bat­i­cal in Mex­i­co, she stuck around to vol­un­teer for the Sanders campaign.

On elec­tion day, Caballer-Chris­ten­son was part of a large bilin­gual group that met at a near­by train sta­tion, and dis­persed into the Fruit­vale neigh­bor­hood to knock on doors the cam­paign had already hit before. Fruit­vale, a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood, has the largest pop­u­la­tion of Lati­nos in Oak­land, account­ing for more than 62% of its residents.

The ear­ly morn­ing out­reach was slow: most peo­ple were already at work, or get­ting their kids ready to go to school. After a few hours of door knock­ing, Caballero-Chris­ten­son vis­it­ed a polling sta­tion to cross-check its list of vot­ers who’d vot­ed in per­son with her cam­paign list of known Sanders sup­port­ers. At 2:00, p.m., it wasn’t look­ing good.

There were very few peo­ple crossed off on their list that we have on our list,” she said. It was kind of disappointing.”

But it’s also not entire­ly sur­pris­ing to Caballero-Chris­ten­son. Over­whelm­ing­ly peo­ple in Fruit­vale are sup­port­ive of Bernie, but I think a lot of them don’t know what day the elec­tion is,” she says.

And even if they do, there’s a his­to­ry of apa­thy to overcome.

Peo­ple are frus­trat­ed with the polit­i­cal process,” she explains. They say it doesn’t real­ly mat­ter,’ or this coun­try doesn’t care about me.’ The hard­est part is con­vinc­ing peo­ple who would not show up to show up.”

In Los Ange­les, peo­ple who did show up may have been dis­cour­aged by the long lines at the polls, that held peo­ple wait­ing up to four hours to cast their bal­lot. On Tues­day night, the Sanders cam­paign filed an emer­gency motion to keep polls open until 10:00 p.m., two hours after the man­dat­ed clo­sure. The motion request­ed that all vot­ers who were in line to vote by 10:00 p.m. would be per­mit­ted to vote provisionally.

A source close to the cam­paign told In These Times it was a fran­tic effort, with a dozen attor­neys all draft­ing and edit­ing pieces of the motion, which was filed in under two hours. Their efforts were in vain; Los Ange­les Coun­ty Reg­is­trar-Recorder/­Coun­ty Clerk Dean Logan took no action on the request, stat­ing that any­one in line by 8:00 p.m. would be allowed to vote — but no exten­sion would be made to make up for the day’s long lines.

Sanders’ suc­cess in Cal­i­for­nia was not unex­pect­ed, though the ver­dict is still out on whether he’ll be able to win enough del­e­gates nation­wide to beat Biden. The suc­cess of his out­reach to Lati­no vot­ers, how­ev­er, bodes well for the future. New Mex­i­co, Ari­zona, Flori­da and New York all have large num­bers of Lati­no res­i­dents, and as the pri­maries con­tin­ue, it’s like­ly the cam­paign strat­e­gy will get smarter. After all, with each elec­tion comes a wealth of data mark­ing how suc­cess­ful — or unsuc­cess­ful — efforts have been to turn out nonvoters.

Nuala Bishari is an award-win­ning free­lance reporter based in San Fran­cis­co, where she cov­ers pol­i­tics, home­less­ness and pub­lic health.
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