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 March 4, 2020

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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