Bernie Sanders is winning the visuals in the fight for California's presidential vote. Every one of his events draws enthusiastic crowds numbering in the adoring thousands, demonstrating support that he hopes will translate into momentum. Hillary Clinton’s campaign events are by design more intimate, featuring hundreds of supporters in venues selected to show her personal side.
But that visual contrast is only one — and historically not a determinative — measure of support. Another is the house-by-house, community group-by-community group warfare being waged in a far less visible way across the state.
In that, Clinton has the advantage, with her army of elected officials and other elements of the Democratic establishment, all trying to persuade their supporters to side with the front-runner.
Theirs is a campaign dependent on an old-fashioned political virtue under assault this campaign year: trust.
And a little arm-twisting.
So far in this presidential contest, Rep. Xavier Becerra has campaigned for Clinton in eight states and done interviews with television and radio outlets in seven more. In California, he’s campaigned in his home base of Los Angeles and in Santa Barbara. Up soon: the Central Valley and Sacramento. All of it is intended to extend his credibility to her.
“The fact is that rarely do people get to meet the candidates who are running for office, especially for president, and so you have to ultimately rely on some sort of information,” he said of voters. “Too often it’s just television commercials, and most of the time you’re turned off them because they’re negative. So you’re making choices based on, oftentimes, things you’re not thrilled about."
The alternative: a local who can vouch for the name at the top of the ticket.
When it comes to a presidential vote, “The more you can get closer to knowing that person, the more confidence you have,” Becerra said.
“If you can’t know the candidate personally, then knowing someone personally who knows the candidate personally is second best, versus some mailer or a campaign commercial.”
Clinton’s longevity in politics has worked against her to some extent in this outsider election year, yet in certain places, decades in the trenches can help. Becerra recalled a trip by Clinton to his district more than two decades ago, as she worked with community leaders to save a historic synagogue: “The people of East L.A. will remember something like that.”
But in a state of 17 million voters, meeting everyone is impossible. Hence the surrogate who makes the pitch at small meetings, hits a neighborhood to knock on doors and bombards his own backers with pleas for help.
Clinton’s most frequently utilized national stand-in is her husband, the former president. Besides him, perhaps the most obvious surrogate in California this primary season has been Dolores Huerta, the cofounder of the United Farm Workers and a symbol of Latino political activism. She’s appearing in television ads for U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris and on Sunday and Monday planned to join Bill Clinton at events for his wife’s campaign.
Sanders has few surrogates among the ranks of California officials or political veterans like Huerta.
The Los Angeles city councilman and former state legislator Gil Cedillo helped to introduce Sanders at his Carson rally on Tuesday night. But the Vermont senator’s main campaign stand-ins this weekend, the last before the voter registration deadline on Monday, are from out of state: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former state Sen. Nina Turner of Ohio. Both have traveled the country as senior Sanders surrogates.
Because of the dearth of establishment support — something he criticizes at his events — Sanders’ campaign has leaned on entertainment figures. Three actors, including Danny Glover, a longtime liberal political activist, spoke to the crowd in Carson. Actors Rosario Dawson, Frances Fisher and Susan Sarandon also have been prominent in his campaign. Young actors and musicians also have come out in support of Sanders and will appear at registration events this weekend.
Apart from the temporary buzz at events, however, entertainers usually play a more prominent role in raising money. Hollywood and San Francisco’s elite have been powerful forces on behalf of both Clintons and President Obama. The get-out-the-vote role is generally dependent on fellow politicians leaning on their own local networks of reliable voters.
Clinton’s surrogate team is a who’s who of elected officialdom, national and statewide.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia opened her Sacramento office. Labor Secretary Tom Perez has taken part in multiple events, including some this weekend with Bill Clinton. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was the target of an assassination attempt in 2011, and her husband Mark Kelly appeared at a gun violence gathering.
California officials have joined them as the June 7 election nears.
All but four of California’s 39 Democratic members of Congress have endorsed Clinton, and many have shown up here to try to persuade their supporters to back her. African American leaders like Reps. Maxine Waters and Karen Bass, Latino leaders like Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have joined in. (Solis is scheduled to appear with Bill Clinton on Saturday in Pomona.)
Eric Garcetti, Libby Schaaf, Sam Liccardo and Ed Lee — the mayors of Los Angeles, Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco, respectively, all big Democratic bases — also have campaigned for her.
In total, their efforts this year are meant to replicate Clinton’s 2008 state primary victory over Barack Obama by more than eight points. That year, the backing of Latina elected officials in Los Angeles was particularly important in persuading voters.
In California, where Latino voters will make up perhaps a quarter of the Democratic electorate, speaking both English and Spanish makes surrogates like Becerra doubly helpful.
There are limits. Clinton had counted on Latino voters as a bulwark in California, but polls show that Sanders has drawn support among younger Latinos much as he has among all young voters. Becerra acknowledged the difficulty of persuading millennials to go with Clinton; unlike their parents they lack a personal connection to the former first lady and embrace Sanders’ proposals for universal healthcare and free tuition at state colleges and universities.
Clinton’s plans — improving Obamacare and college tuition assistance depending on financial need — can feel like half a loaf.
“And I try to make it clear that it’s great to dream but at the end of the day, you’re going to have to pay the bill if the dream doesn’t come true,” he said. “And so let’s go where we know we can do it, and go with someone who has been tested and experienced and can get it done.”
Both Clinton and Sanders will be in California for much of the next two weeks, speaking to as many voters as they can and, potentially, expanding their reach with ads. Less publicized, the surrogates will be out there too.