As Bernie Sanders looks toward California to make a defiant final stand, he is bumping up against a dilemma that his campaign has not had to confront in some time.
He is running short on cash.
In no state is money more crucial for a candidate than in California. Its sheer size, in both geography and population, makes running here a ridiculously expensive endeavor. Its media markets are some of the most costly in the world, and candidates who try to sidestep big ad buys typically fail to convey their message to key segments of the electorate.
So now is a poor time for a precipitous drop in cash flow for Sanders. Amid a string of big losses to front-runner Hillary Clinton in April, Sanders’ fundraising for the month fell to $25.8 million — which would seem a significant amount, except that in both February and March, he raised nearly $20 million more.
At the same time, he has been burning through his cash far more quickly than Clinton, outspending her in many of the big states he lost. Sanders has not yet reported his spending for April, but he likely spent well more than he raised based on the amount of airtime purchased, the size of his campaign’s payroll, and the other expenses the campaign has in a typical month.
Clinton, who will campaign Thursday in East Los Angeles, started April with more money in the bank than Sanders, raised substantially more in contributions and spent less. Now, her bank account is looking a lot healthier than his.
“He’s a beautiful fit for California,” said Sanders backer RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United and a veteran of guerrilla campaigns in California. The nurses union started putting up 30 billboards around the state about a month ago and is bringing its “Bernie Bus” down from Oregon on Thursday, with plans for it to crisscross California until the primary.
“We’re in farmers markets, we’re in public places, we’re going to be at all the rallies,” DeMoro said. She said it was typical of the mainstream media to look at a $25.8-million month for the Vermont insurgent as a setback. “You’ve got a narrative out there that Bernie can’t win, Bernie can’t win. But he raises [$26 million],” she said. “That’s the story.”
California remains a crucial battleground for both Democratic candidates even though it is almost certainly not going to affect who wins the nomination. Clinton is far enough ahead of Sanders in delegates that she barely pays him any attention on the stump. But for her to lose in California would be a blow to party and campaign morale heading into the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.
Sanders, for his part, is eager to mop up as many delegates as he can in the state to bolster his influence at the convention, where he plans to push the national party platform to the left.
Neither is taking anything for granted in California, where the electorate can be unpredictable.
Most of the state’s political establishment is lined up behind Hillary Clinton, and her team in California includes some of its most seasoned operatives. Both she and her husband have already campaigned here.
“I’m on my way to California,” Clinton said Wednesday in Washington, at a reception of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies attended by several California lawmakers. “We’re going to be campaigning up and down the Golden State.”
It is unclear, though, how her campaign will use Sanders’ fundraising drought of late to its advantage. Campaign officials were cagey about their spending plans in California.
If Sanders does not come up with the cash to run an aggressive advertising push, Clinton may opt to ease up herself. Her campaign has been conservative with its resources, even allowing itself to be outgunned on the air in key primary states as it redirects its attention to the general election. As Sanders lays off dozens of staffers in states that have already voted, Clinton has begun staffing up in preparation for the fall.
“She’s been smart with her money, and she needs to be,” said Bill Burton, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist who worked on President Obama’s first campaign and now supports Clinton. “The general election is going to be expensive.... To spend a lot of money on a race that’s essentially been decided would be foolish.”
It would take a major uptick in cash flow for Sanders to mount the kind of effort in California he has in other states. A big ingredient of the Sanders surge has been blanketing the airwaves. Media consultants estimate that a standard statewide media buy in California, one that is more modest than what the campaign has purchased elsewhere, would cost some $4.5 million per week for airtime alone — money Sanders just does not have at the moment.
And history suggests it is unlikely that fundraising for Sanders is going to bounce back to where it was.
“It only gets more dire,” said Doug Herman, a Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant who sees the drop in Sanders’ fundraising as “indicative of the road ahead.”
But unlike his opponent, whatever Sanders has in the bank once June rolls around, he is almost certain to spend in California.
“This is the end of the line,” Herman said. “There’s nothing to save it for after this.”