Inside Bernie’s Unorthodox Plan To Beat Trump

Leticia Arce, 29, is volunteering at a Spanish-language phone bank session January 24 at Sanders’ campaign office in the historically working-class, Latino Mission District of San Francisco. Arce, a tenant- and immigrant-rights organizer, appreciates Sanders’ plan to expand Social Security benefits.

“I work with a lot of people who are getting $900, $1,000 in Social Security, and they’re paying $600, $700 of that toward rent,” Arce says. “A lot of elders need to keep working into their seventies to survive.”

Two of the women Arce brought with her were senior, monolingual Spanish speakers who can’t vote—but are dedicated to turning out Sanders supporters.

“[Sanders’] vision can really move voters who haven’t historically voted,” Arce says. “It’s just a very exciting time and a big opportunity to get people activated.” But there are decades of apathy and disenfranchisement to tackle, too. “People have a lot of pessimism toward voting,” she adds, and many of her phone calls consist of basic civic engagement: What is a primary? Why does California matter? How do you register as a Democrat?

“Oftentimes, when I talk to monolingual Spanish voters, they haven’t been outreached to,” Arce says. “They’re not getting all the phone calls that English voters might be getting.”

Sanders is working to change that, adding more campaign offices and field organizers since 2016. Though his platform certainly hasn’t changed much (Medicare for All, tuition-free college and massive investment in affordable housing remain central planks) his campaign strategy has.

“I think [the Sanders camp was] initially running—and he’s been pretty up-front about this—because someone needed to make the progressive case on that national stage,” says Dan Cohen, a progressive political strategist and pollster not affiliated with the Sanders campaign. “When that’s your goal, you’re a lot less worried about building an infrastructure capable of [winning a primary].”

The so-called nonvoter group Sanders is going after includes the newly eligible young voter, the non-registered voter, the occasional voter and the regular voter who doesn’t primary. These nonvoters are younger, less affluent and less likely to be white. Most make less than $30,000/year.

Reaching these voters costs money and can come at the expense of outreach to more reliable voters. Sanders, the primary’s most successful fundraiser, is using that money to “cast a broad net,” says Chuck Rocha, a senior advisor to the campaign. In the first five primary states, the Sanders campaign began door-knocking almost a year ago, talking with voters to “determine who is most likely to be energized by Bernie Sanders.”

California offers a snapshot of this growth since 2016, expanding three offices in Los Angeles and Oakland to 19 across California, the majority in working-class and Latino neighborhoods. The campaign had the most extensive California ground game until late entrant Michael Bloomberg began pouring money into the state, hiring 220 organizers (to Sanders’ 90) and targeting centrist Latinos. But Sanders got a head start, boasting a half million phone calls and 400,000 doors knocked in the state in 2019.

With 415 delegates, California has the most of any state. Starting this year, it has bumped its primary from June—so late, its results often did not change the outcome of the race—to the most influential day of the season, March 3, aka Super Tuesday. But California matters to Sanders for more reasons than just momentum.

“California is a state that actually represents this country—it’s not Iowa, it’s not New Hampshire,” says Jane Kim, Sanders’ California political director. “He wants to demonstrate that he can win a diverse state that is rich with Latinx, Asian-Pacific Islander, African American voters and young voters. He believes that that’s his base: working-class voters. Nowhere in the country is the income inequality so stark as it is here in the state, and that’s really what his agenda is based on.” 

According to the California Civic Engagement Project, Latinos comprise nearly a quarter of all voter growth in the United States from 1996 to 2016. They make up 21% of California voters. Yet many campaigns invest little in outreach to Latinos.

“They’re never talked to early in a campaign,” Rocha says. “Just at the last minute, with some horribly translated Google ad, and then they’re expected to turn out. There’s never an expansion of the universe. It’s just a halfway effort to try to get the prime voters among the Latino universe out. We’ve turned that on its head.”

Half of Sanders’ California area directors—three of six—are Latino, as is the state director of the campaign, Rafael Návar. According to Návar, primary election outreach efforts in California began in earnest in summer 2019—with an emphasis on non-party preference voters, particularly in Latino working-class communities. It’s a valuable voter base: A quarter of registered voters in California have not declared a party preference, more than all registered California Republicans. But reaching these voters is not easy. Only rarely have neighborhoods with high concentrations of non-party preference voters heard from presidential campaigns.

“They’re infrequent voters—they might miss midterms, or [might not be] engaged in every election cycle,” Návar explains. “But we know that they would respond favorably to the policies that Sanders puts forward. Our strategy is really focused on talking to these voters and meeting them where they’re at.”

Sanders canvasser Ivan Aguilar’s specialty is in talking with people who may not be interested in politics. Aguilar, 27, began campaigning for Sanders in 2016, but he says there’s more energy from his Latino community this time. At a 2019 Day of the Dead celebration in Oakland, for example, he says a flood of people descended on his Sanders table with questions, turning his four-hour shift into a 10-hour day. The next morning, campaign staffers offered him a position as a field organizer. He quit his job and started knocking on doors.

Aguilar canvassed Meadow Fair on January 26, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in East San Jose. The neighborhood is mostly small, one-story single-family homes, their yards filled with orange trees, cacti and flowers.

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