How the Sanders Campaign Plans to Win California This Time Around

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Kari Khoury shuffles through campaign materials in her trunk before canvassing in Stockton, California, on Jan. 26, 2020. (Jeremy Siegel/KQED)

After losing California's 2016 Democratic presidential primary to Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders is reshaping his ground game in the Golden State, hoping to win over key voting blocks, including residents of the Central Valley, Latino voters and Californians registered as "no party preference."

Clinton defeated Sanders by nearly 8 percentage points in California four years ago. In the Central Valley, that win was even more stark, with double-digit differentials for Clinton in several Valley counties. This time around, the Vermont senator is betting big on where he previously lost hardest.

"We are spending time in parts of California that other campaigns simply ignore," said Sanders 2020 California political director Jane Kim. "We have an agenda that is actually going to energize Central Valley voters."

The campaign hopes that Sanders' focus on sweeping economic proposals that aim to help lower-income people will resonate with Central Valley residents who feel left behind.

"We're talking about a region of California that is largely working class and has been under-resourced in a state that is incredibly wealthy," Kim said.

Bernie 2020 volunteers Brandon Youngblood and Kari Khoury before canvassing in Stockton, California, on Jan. 26, 2020. (Jeremy Siegel/KQED)

That's a message that hits home with Sanders 2020 volunteer Brandon Youngblood, who lives in Stockton — part of San Joaquin County, where Sanders lost in 2016 by more than 14 percentage points.

"Political activities are relatively low here, and we really think the political revolution is ground zero here in a place like Stockton," Youngblood said as he prepared to canvas for Sanders Sunday morning.

"I think Stockton gets scapegoated and fear-mongered a great deal, because we do have a significant amount of crime," he added. "But we have to talk about the origins of crime ... When it comes to socioeconomic status, when it comes to the school-to-prison pipeline, we need resources. Bernie Sanders understands this better than any other candidate."

For fellow Sanders supporter and Stockton resident Kari Khoury, it all comes down to health care. She thinks Sanders' Medicare for All plan will particularly resonate with Central Valley voters.

"I'm a retired nurse, and I worked with the San Joaquin Medical Society to look at people who are suffering from asthma," Khoury said.

"We have one of the highest rates in the state. And it's because people are not getting good, consistent preventative care," Khoury said. "Medicare for All is a huge push for us in the Central Valley."

Kari Kouhry's Bernie 2020 button on Jan. 26, 2020. (Jeremy Siegel/KQED)

A large block of potential support in the Central Valley — and California at-large — comes from Latino voters, who make up a larger portion of the state's population than whites. While Latino voters are not monolithic, outreach to the community has been a core component of Sanders' campaign, according to Jane Kim.

"This is a very important voting block for the Sanders campaign, and we have made a concerted effort of being in those communities," Kim said.

The vast majority of Sander's California campaign offices are located in areas with large Latino populations, Kim said, including Bakersfield, Oxnard and San Francisco's Mission District. In Coachella, the Sanders team is working out of the same office formerly occupied by legendary farm labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Kim added that the campaign is actively recruiting Spanish-language organizers as part of an "intentional and concerted " effort to win over Latino voters.

"We believe that this community really represents the agenda that Sanders stands for," she said. "It is a working-class community, and it is also a community that has largely shaped the political and social movements here in the state of California."

Bernie 2020 canvassing gear sits in the trunk of Kari Khoury's car on Jan. 26, 2020. (Jeremy Siegel/KQED)

Another group the Sanders campaign is actively taking aim at is the independent bloc. Californians registered as "no party preference" (NPP) represent the fastest-growing voting group of voters in the state, now outnumbering Republicans.

Kim said NPP voters are a "big part" of the campaign's California strategy. "We believe there are a lot of Sanders supporters among those that have not listed a preference," she added.

There's likely a good amount validity to that belief, according to Paul Mitchell, vice president of the bipartisan voter data firm Political Data, Inc.

"The Sanders campaign probably can identify nonpartisans — maybe younger voters — and in the polling, you can see that he does have a base of support," Mitchell said.

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While independents can participate in the state's primary, it can get complicated, because voters need to request the Democratic ballot from county election officials. In 2016, that extra step hurt Sanders' chances in the Golden State, according to Mitchell.

"This inability of nonpartisan voters to get the correct ballots significantly hampered Bernie in 2016," he said. "So I think the Bernie folks are walking back into California saying, 'We're not going to let this happen us again.'"

That marks what might be Sanders' biggest strength in the California contest: Because he's the only Democratic contender that participated in the 2016 primary, he has a plethora of lessons to learn from.

As California's current front runner in a new Change Research poll for KQED, Sanders leads with 30% support ahead of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (16%) and former Vice President Joe Biden (15%). It appears his campaign is putting those lessons from 2016 to use.