First to the bar with his Bernie Sanders button last week came Tristan Brown, who identified himself as an organizer of Sanders’ faithful, “technically speaking.”
The independent senator from Vermont keeps a “loose organization,” Brown said. But with Sanders gaining momentum in the Democratic presidential primary in early nominating states, supporters are attempting to turn his flicker of success into a durable campaign.
In late-voting California, where the primary is still nine months away, volunteers stand outside farmers markets, post relentlessly on social media and call voters living in more decisive states. They hold faith in a long-shot candidacy and the possibility that Hillary Clinton – the front-runner both in California and nationally – can be toppled.
At Yolo Brewing Co. in West Sacramento, Brown said, “We’ve been just trying to coalesce all the little pods (of support) out here.”
Sanders, for now Clinton’s main rival in the Democratic primary, has delighted liberal Democrats with his support for single-payer health care and free college tuition. They cheer his calls for immigration and campaign finance reform and his votes against the Iraq War and government bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Introducing Sanders, 74, at a rally in Los Angeles last month, the comedian Sarah Silverman said “he always seems to be on the right side of history.”
Sanders also is a Democratic socialist, emphasizing income inequality in his campaign. Even his supporters, however, fear the label could prove a liability.
“Of course it’s a problem,” Brown said, while suggesting voters could warm to it if they learned more about Sanders’ plans. “He’s not a Marxist-Leninist.”
Tens of thousands of people have packed Sanders rallies around the country, and he has surged in public opinion polls, overtaking Clinton in some surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Yet Clinton’s national support among Democrats runs higher, and she has raised far more money.
At the meeting of Sanders supporters in West Sacramento, activists did not shout, “Feel the Bern!” as they do at their rallies. Instead, they set two laptops on a table near the door, one for guests to sign up to volunteer, the other to donate money to the campaign.
Organizers asked for $8.
“Sometimes I tell myself, ‘Be realistic, a democratic socialist will never be elected president,’” said Dennis Godby, a 59-year-old naturopathic doctor from Sacramento. “Well, I never thought a black man would be elected president, either.”
Sometimes I tell myself, ‘Be realistic, a democratic socialist will never be elected president.’ Well, I never thought a black man would be elected president, either.
Dennis Godby, a 59-year-old naturopathic doctor from Sacramento
The Democratic primary is widely expected to be settled before the contest reaches California in June. But if it is not, Clinton holds a significant advantage here. The state went for Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008, and she maintains donor connections dating back to her husband’s first run for president in 1992.
According to a recent University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll, Sanders trails Clinton by 16 percentage points among registered Democrats and independent voters in California, and by even wider margins among Latino voters and other minorities.
Bernie Sanders trails Hillary Clinton 26 percent to 42 percent in a recent University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll.
Drew Lieberman, vice president of Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, which helped conduct the poll, noted Clinton’s strong support from nonwhite voters in California could hurt Sanders more here than in some less diverse states.
In West Sacramento, the crowd peaked at about 50 people and skewed so young that some could not drink what Yolo Brewing Co. held on tap.
Zach Newman, an 18-year-old who is coordinating speakers to promote Sanders’ candidacy at events, said he is organizing training sessions and working on a PowerPoint.
Newman, who graduated from high school this year, said “what got me interested was the free college.”
What got me interested was the free college.
Zach Newman, 18
Behind him, blocks toppled over and a Sanders devotee called, “Jenga!” At another table, Walt Rhoads and his wife, Julie Maahs, folded brochures.
Maahs, a 55-year-old tax professional, first heard of Sanders years ago but forgot about him until he started lighting up her Facebook page this year. She said she has prepared taxes for middle-income people whose incomes have stagnated.
“People are getting poorer and poorer, so somebody comes along and says it’s not your fault you’re getting poorer and poorer – it’s the billionaires stealing it from you,” she said. “Bernie Sanders is the first politician I’ve ever been really excited about in my life.”
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said that in early presidential politics, “California tends to be somewhat of a lagging indicator in terms of public opinion” because candidates spend so little time in the state.
But in another measure of viability – fundraising – California holds significant influence. And Sanders’ performance is underwhelming. He raised less than $200,000 from California in the second quarter of this year. In that same period, Clinton raised about $8 million here.
For some Sanders supporters, this shortcoming is one more reason to root for him. Noah Godby, Dennis Godby’s nephew, said he was drawn to a candidate who is “not afraid to lose.”
Clinton, he said, is “more calculating, and she’s more of a politician.”
Godby bags groceries in Sacramento but put in notice recently to quit, planning to travel in Europe before returning to volunteer for the Sanders campaign.
Rhoads, who already volunteers, walked over with a kombucha in his hand.
“I know that at this event there are fewer than we expected,” he said.
But there are still five months before the first primary elections, and Sanders supporters around the country were organizing similar events that night.
“This is just one little thing,” Rhoads said, “and I’m sure the ones around the country … the other ones are probably bursting at the seams.”
U.S. senator from Vermont
Born: Sept. 8, 1941 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Political party: Independent, but running for the Democratic Party nomination
Elected experience: U.S. Senate, 2007-present; U.S. House, 1991-2007; Mayor of Burlington, Vt., 1981-1989
Education: Bachelor’s degree, political science, University of Chicago, 1964.
Positions: Proposes creating single-payer health care system; raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020; enacting universal child care and pre-kindergarten; eliminating undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities