Column: Sanders makes big promises with few details. But his California support is unshakable

Ricardo Alonzo
Ricardo Alonso, a volunteer with the Bernie Sanders campaign, leaves a flier at a home while canvassing an East Los Angeles neighborhood. He says he does not try to convert voters but to provide information about his candidate.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

I am in the Bernie Bubble, a happy and spirited domain, a place where all things are possible and victory is near.

At the Bernie Sanders field office on Atlantic Boulevard in East Los Angeles, I’m talking to a 25-year-old volunteer one minute and a 77-year-old true believer the next, and they take turns sharing the love.

For the record:

11:45 a.m. March 4, 2020An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Ricardo Alonzo, a Bernie Sanders supporter, as Ricardo Alonso.

Bells are ringing in the Bernie Bubble. Every time a phone bank operator lines up another volunteer to knock on doors, it’s jingle bell time. Volunteer canvassers, about to go out and sell Bernie door to door, get a quick pep talk and then gather around a cardboard cutout of Sanders, the next best thing to Bernie in the flesh.


And the bells keep ringing.

In the midst of all this harmony, many skeptics across the country wonder if this is the best way forward for the Democratic Party, or if the continued rise of a democratic socialist is sure to turn Donald J. Trump into a two-term president. Trump himself is rooting Sanders on, and according to published reports, so are Trump’s best friends — the Russians.

 Bernie Sanders campaign headquarters in East Los Angeles
Volunteers gather for a brief meeting at the Bernie Sanders campaign headquarters in East Los Angeles before heading out to canvass for the candidate.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

I’ll get to the electability question, as well as the small matter of some missing details in the Sanders plan, in which the wealthy will be rounded up and hog-tied and have their pockets picked, making everything free for everyone else. But first, some numbers that tell a story with the following headline:

Sanders is running away with California.

In the crowded field of candidates for the Democratic nomination, the U.S. senator from Vermont had a 2-to-1 lead over his nearest rival in California, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, at 34% to 17%. Trailing well behind, in order, were Michael R. Bloomberg (12%), Pete Buttigieg (11%), Joe Biden (8%) and Amy Klobuchar (6%).

The UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll had the 78-year-old Sanders taking 61% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29, 51% of the Latino vote and 50% of the “very liberal” vote. If his numbers in the March 3 primary are as robust as the poll suggests they’ll be, Sanders will capture a strong majority of California’s 415 delegates.


And it will be because of loyal supporters like those who are putting their jobs and other commitments on hold to join the Bernie Brigade. That’s why I wanted to see who they are and what they see in their candidate.

Connie Arteaga, 26, a college graduate who plans to study for a teaching credential, said she was with Sanders four years ago, and for her there’s nobody else in the race.

“I’m from a working-class family that has always struggled, my parents are immigrants, and he has consistently fought for the working class,” said Arteaga.

Sanders, Arteaga told me, is the first politician who has made her and many in her generation believe they have the power to influence the kind of changes they want to see. At the field office, she and others told me they like Sanders on climate change, immigration reform, Medicare for all, free college, and tax reform to address income inequality.

In short, Sanders offers a vision of a country they want to live in.

Chad Kotz, 29, challenged my point about the possibility of Sanders alienating Democrats who stand closer to the middle.

“When you state things in terms of center, left and right, I think what that leaves out is a working class, which is not a left or right or center issue. It’s a common-problem issue,” said Kotz. He told me he suspects that voters who liked Trump four years ago might be inclined to see if Sanders can deliver what Trump has not.

“Bernie Sanders is in many ways, to me, the last honest politician,” said Kotz.

But how much honesty is there in Sanders’ promises that would cost tens of trillions of dollars to deliver, roughly doubling the size of the federal government over the next 10 years by some estimates?

And how would a President Sanders get any of that done, given GOP control of the U.S. Senate and the likelihood that even many Democrats would try to rein Sanders in?

For some Californians, questions like those have translated into support for Warren, the only other candidate within spitting distance of Sanders.

“I’m a big believer in all that he wants to accomplish,” said Kirstie Jeffries, 30, who has been making calls and canvassing for Warren. “Their policies are very similar, but what I like about Warren is that she really has taken the time to build out a concrete plan, she has done the math… She really does have a plan, and if you go to her website you’ll see pages and pages explaining what she wants to do.”

When it comes to loyalty, though, Sanders has few rivals, with Trump being the possible exception. The support is so rabid, in fact, it might be a mistake to underestimate the power of the movement. Trump didn’t seem to have a chance, in 2016, until he won.

“I know the political narrative is that he won’t be able to get things done,” said Adriel Fernandez, 28, who was canvassing for Sanders along with his sister, a nephew and a friend. “But I’m not that jaded yet, and I think there’s power in voting.”

He and others acknowledged that campaign promises and legislative success are two different things, but they argued that Sanders is not the end of the revolution — he’s the start of it. In their minds, if Sanders is elected, and the future is in the hands of younger and more diverse voters, the political landscape of the future could be vastly different.

Ricardo Alonso, right, a volunteer with the Bernie Sanders campaign
Ricardo Alonso, right, a volunteer with the Bernie Sanders campaign, speaks with Kendra Nebo, whose mom supports Pete Buttigieg, while canvassing homes in an East Los Angeles neighborhood.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

That’s the hope of Sanders volunteer Ricardo Alonzo, 35, who got his canvassing assignment at the field office on Thursday and drove to the 900 block of South Alma Avenue to knock on doors.

Alonzo, a hardware and software engineer who lives in Montebello, took notice of Sanders four years ago.

“He seemed genuine and believable,” said Alonzo, who is particularly worried about climate change, which Trump has dismissed as phony. He wants to see immigration reform, too, and he’s all in on the Sanders themes about wealth and opportunity being in the hands of too few people.

On Alma Avenue, where summer seemed to have arrived early, Alonzo knocked on doors and rang bells and looked out for dogs. Most people weren’t home; a couple of others didn’t care to talk but accepted Bernie literature.

One house had Pete Buttigieg posters out front. Kendra Nebo explained that her mother was on board with Buttigieg, and Nebo agreed that Buttigieg is well spoken and “a fresh face.” But Nebo said she likes Sanders, too.

“I’m still kind of between both of them,” Nebo said, and Alonzo handed her some literature.

Sometimes, Alonzo said as he worked the street, just showing up and introducing yourself could be enough to win a vote among those who are undecided. But no persuasion was necessary when he knocked on the door of Rudolfo Anguiano.

Ricardo Alonso, a volunteer with the Bernie Sanders campaign
Ricardo Alonso, a volunteer with the Bernie Sanders campaign, canvasses an East Los Angeles neighborhood.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

“I’m for Bernie,” said the retired truck driver, who believes Sanders cares about working class people and Trump has to go because, among other things, “he’s prejudiced.”

The rest of his family is also voting for Sanders, Anguiano said.

One house, four votes for Sanders.

In California, there is no bursting of the Bernie Bubble.