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Analysis: Why Bernie Sanders keeps popping up in California’s out-of-the-way places

Sanders in Ventura
Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders fires up supporters in Ventura.
(Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images )

All week Bernie Sanders has galloped about California, showing up in places where presidential candidates usually don’t tread.

On Sunday he was in Vista. On Tuesday he hit Riverside and San Bernardino. On Wednesday he was in Cathedral City and Lancaster. On Thursday, Ventura. On Saturday, he’ll be in Santa Maria.

His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, has stuck more to the traditional power centers for Democrats, visiting the Los Angeles area, Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Although she, too, meandered to the Inland Empire and Salinas this week.

Sanders alluded to his all-over-the-place strategy on Thursday in Ventura, where he spoke to a crowd estimated at more than 8,000 people.

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“We are holding rallies just like this up and down this state,” he said, calling his strategy, with some exaggeration, unprecedented “in California political history.”

“And by the end of this campaign here in California, I am confident that we will have personally met and spoken to over 200,000 Californians.”

His move to the exurbs and to other less definitely Democratic turf is driven by several realities particular to California.

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People who have been left behind by this rigged economy — that’s a big part of the strategy, that we shine a light on them.
Ben Tulchin, the Sanders campaign’s California-based pollster

Foremost is the state of the Democratic campaign: Sanders continues to trail Clinton, even if the race appears to be narrowing. So he needs every vote he can get.

And there are plenty of voters to get outside of the state’s urban centers. They’re especially important to Sanders because the higher proportion of African American and Latino voters in the cities tends to push the electorate more in Clinton’s direction.

In the Inland Empire, where Sanders and Clinton appeared only a few hours apart Tuesday, more than 850,000 voters were eligible to cast ballots in the Democratic primary by the last voter count in early April. That figure — which includes both Democrats and nonpartisan voters who can take part in the primary -- does not include the latest registration surge before Monday’s deadline.

In raw numbers, that is more potential voters than cast ballots in the entire state of Virginia during its March Democratic primary.

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In San Diego County, more Republican than the state as a whole, more than 900,000 voters were eligible to cast Democratic ballots on June 7. Only 620,000 voters cast ballots in New Hampshire and South Carolina combined during their Democratic primaries.

Here in Ventura County, 60% of the voters, or nearly a quarter of a million people, were eligible to vote in the primary before the final registrations were tallied.

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Another factor makes the exurbs a potential goldmine for Sanders, in particular: While the state as a whole took a giant hit during the Great Recession, the exurbs were particularly hard hit.

Residents who weathered long commutes and stretched financially to buy more affordable housing found their equity destroyed; at one point nearly 1 in 5 Inland Empire borrowers was behind on a home loan during the depths of the recession, and more were underwater on their homes.

Some of the areas still feel the pinch of job loss — both Riverside and San Bernardino counties have higher unemployment rates than the state as a whole. That would seem to make at least some residents more receptive to Sanders’ condemnation of Wall Street’s actions leading up to the recession and his plan to break up the big banks.

Campaigning among those residents reinforces the Vermont senator’s message that he is the candidate of the working class, not the elites, his campaign believes.

“He’s not hanging out in Beverly Hills, not hanging out in Pacific Heights for a reason,” said Ben Tulchin, the campaign’s California-based pollster, referring to the high-end communities in Southern and Northern California.

“People who have been left behind by this rigged economy — that’s a big part of the strategy, that we shine a light on them,” he said.

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The exurbs make for a dual opportunity for candidates: Most are close enough to major media markets like Los Angeles and San Francisco that events there are broadcast to a wider audience. But the locals still have the opportunity to feel a personal connection to the arriving candidates.

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With his highly nationalized approach, however, Sanders doesn’t take full advantage of the opportunity for kinship. In the northern San Diego County city of Vista, he mispronounced the city’s name. In Irvine, he suggested that many schoolchildren in that upscale area didn’t know anyone attending college.

In perhaps the most gaping omission, he did not refer to the December San Bernardino terrorist attacks in his speech there. Clinton, by contrast, mentioned the loss of life and continued concern in San Bernardino during her appearance in nearby Riverside.

In Ventura, Sanders was preceded to the stage by an organizer who noted that the venue for the event was a Native American site.

Sanders made no mention of that, sticking to the words he uses in every speech about how America owes a debt to its native people that it can never fully repay.

Tulchin said that part of the reason Sanders sticks to the same speech, almost word for word, in every appearance is that he wants his basic message to stick in the minds of Californians who are only now starting to experience the presidential campaign up close.

Talking about issues that Californians care about — like climate change — “is a local message in a way,” Tulchin said.

Sanders will campaign in California for most of the remaining days before June 7. And he indicated Thursday, with more vigor than he did earlier in the week, he expects a positive result.

“I feel increasingly confident that here in California we are going to win and win big,” he told the crowd in Ventura.

“And I believe we’ll be marching out of that convention as the Democratic nominee,” he said, and then added a line that drew a roar:

“If I am the Democratic nominee, Donald Trump is toast.”

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker and subscribe to the free daily newsletter.


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