By the time California’s presidential primary election arrived in 2016, Bernie Sanders was a beaten man. This time around, everything has changed.
The senator from Vermont was an insurgent outsider three years ago in a head-to-head race against Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state whose grip on the Democratic nomination was effectively unshakeable by the time California’s primary was held in June that year.
When Sanders heads to San Diego on Friday for the first of three California campaign rallies, the self-described democratic socialist will be asking for votes in a Democratic contest in which he’s a top-shelf candidate. He’ll be campaigning in a state that could be pivotal to choosing the Democratic nominee. And unlike the state’s end-of-the-line primary in 2016, California is voting near the front of the pack this time in March 2020 with hundreds of delegates at stake.
He previewed his approach to the state on Wednesday when he spoke to striking workers in Los Angeles. He touched on familiar themes, decrying “a war being waged against the working people” and California’s notoriously expensive housing costs and rents.
“The stage is set” for a Sanders win in 2020, predicted striking worker Ben Evans, 45, a Los Angeles Democrat who attended the rally. “Everyone who paid attention last time is not going to forget.”
In his second White House run, Sanders is jostling for position as the roster of Democratic candidates continues to grow — former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas entered the race last week, and former Vice President Joe Biden has been hinting at a possible run.
Sanders remains popular with his liberal base, but he faces a new set of challenges in California in 2020 — among them, he’s competing on the home turf of rival Democrat Kamala Harris, California’s junior senator. She’s the former state attorney general and has won statewide races in California three times.
But home-state connections don’t always equate with success in California. Bill Clinton, for instance, defeated former California Gov. Jerry Brown in the state’s 1992 presidential primary, on his way to winning the White House.
Michael Ceraso, who did a stint leading Sanders’ 2016 campaign in the state, said the senator will need to do a better job connecting his big ideas for change with the concerns of local voters, especially minorities.
“He’s going to need to break the narrative that he can’t connect with communities of color,” Ceraso said.
Unlike 2016, voters in the Golden State are familiar with Sanders — he grabbed 46 percent of the tally against the far-better-known Clinton. Since his first run for the White House, some of his signature proposals have been embraced by the party’s mainstream, including “Medicare for All” and decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level, issues that are popular in strongly Democratic California.
And he has an established donor base and a devoted volunteer corps.
In 2016, Sanders “came here and spent quite a bit of money and did better than anyone thought he was going to do,” said veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who is based in Los Angeles.
“He came out of it with a lot of assets that he’s going to bring to this campaign,” Carrick added.
Among his challenges, Sanders will need to perform strongly in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and other Democratic strongholds, where Clinton bested him in 2016 and where Harris has done well in her state campaigns.
That’s especially important in a Democratic presidential contest because the maze of rules that divvy up California delegates rewards candidates who do well in strongly Democratic areas.
With a dozen candidates in the race and many sharing similar views, it’s not been established if Sanders can generate the foot-stomping enthusiasm witnessed in his 2016 run, when he was a first-time presidential candidate running against an establishment favorite.
Ben Tulchin, Sanders’ San Francisco-based pollster, said the senator is well-positioned to compete in California, and possibly win it.
Sanders is a strong draw with younger voters, and millennials now make up the largest age group among registered voters in California. However, younger voters also tend to be unreliable on Election Day.
Sanders has another edge, Tulchin said. A string of recent polls has found that Sanders is favored at this point by Hispanics, who make up an increasingly influential slice of the California electorate.
“Sanders’s strength with Latino voters has major implications” in states with large Hispanic populations, including California, Tulchin concluded in a recent memo.
But he’ll also need to do well with independents, who make up about 1 in 4 voters in the state and can participate in California’s Democratic presidential primaries.
At the rally, striking worker Stephanie Aguirre, 26, of Los Angeles, said she voted for Sanders in 2016 and was leaning his way again. The clinical social worker said the broader acceptance of his platform, once seen as rooted on the political fringe, boded well for his candidacy.
For those who didn’t vote for him last time, “I just hope that people will have a change of heart,” she said.