Can Bernie Sanders Replicate His Big L.A. Win?
Part of the reason for Sanders’s draw is his singular cultural currency. His outerwear oven mitts, his endearing dance moves, and his clothes chair make him “cool because he’s not cool,” as veteran Hollywood P.R. strategist Howard Bragman told the Washington Post. “If you saw him on the street, you’d want to take him to a Hollywood makeover show…But then you wouldn’t have Bernie. There’s an authenticity there, and that is cool.” The aesthetic of the past few years has been anachronistic, unusual, jolie laide even. (A Vogue prediction from last year reads: “Ugly sandals are the new ugly sneakers.”) Bernie’s “two fucked up little sweaters” vibe is unexpectedly of the moment.
So are his policy ideas, from “Medicare for all” to the Green New Deal. Supporting Sanders gives celebrities, especially those known to spout off at the president in awards speeches, an opportunity to match their actions to their words. Earnest concern for the future of the country is du jour, and for good reason, especially among the younger voter subset that Sanders almost single-handedly commands—the very people who most closely follow the Ariana Grandes and Cardi Bs of the world.
While more moderate former candidates like Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg attracted some Hollywood enthusiasm, support for Sanders’s last standing competitor, Joe Biden, is anemic by comparison (though his acolytes do include, confoundingly, the greatest person in the known universe, Cher). Leonardo DiCaprio attended a Hollywood fundraiser for him last week—but quietly. The comparative lack of celebrity support makes enough sense; Biden is the hair-sniffer who helped make Anita Hill’s life hell, then botched the “apology.” Not very #TimesUp. The least Hollywood of all the candidates is also, at this point, the most likely nominee, surely a disappointment to some of Sanders’s celebrity endorsers. The entertainment industry doesn’t tend to be electrified by middle ground, particularly on environmental issues. And Biden has none of the sheen of representation of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
And yet, the entertainment industry’s enthusiasm was not the prime force in Bernie’s sweep of Los Angeles. You’ll recall that, after being harangued for years to make political endorsements, Taylor Swift finally broke her silence in a 2018 Senate race in Tennessee; her candidate lost. Oprah’s best efforts couldn’t swing a governor’s race. The more likely reason Bernie carried L.A. is because his team ran a serious campaign here, in part thanks to the state’s decision, after 2016, to move its primary up by three months.
“We got there earlier than any presidential campaign has ever set up shop in California and we centered [the campaign] in L.A.,” said Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to Sanders. By primary day, they had 23 California offices and more than 100 staff members running a full-time operation. For comparison, Joe Biden had just one office in the most delegate-rich state in the country. Traditionally, campaigns have avoided investing in field organizing in California because it’s such a huge amount of ground to cover, instead pouring their money into ad buys. Ahead of Super Tuesday, Biden reportedly spent a meager $4,000 on digital ads across California; Sanders, by comparison, spent $7 million.
While the East Coast might consider L.A. the land of the Instagram influencer drinking green juice, in reality, those residents are few in number. To effectively organize L.A. County, you’ll want to forget those guys and focus on the Latino vote. As of 2011, L.A. County had 4.9 million Latino residents, according to the Pew Research Center—a full 9% of the country’s Latino population. By every indication, this number has been growing. “In 2015 and 2016, we didn’t realize the support that we had in the Latino community until it was almost over,” Rocha says. “So we started this campaign where we left off, which was in those communities.” The Sanders campaign opened its first California office in East L.A., an area that’s 96% Latino, and hired East L.A. native Rafael Návar as its California director.
That fastidious grassroots work paid off; in some predominately Latino L.A. precincts, Sanders captured more than 65% of the vote. The Sanders campaign also built relationships with two segments of the population that have showed up for Bernie in other places: organized labor and young people. Sanders was the first national politician to publicly support the landmark Los Angeles teachers’ union strike last year, the union’s secretary told Jacobin magazine, and two months later, he traveled to UCLA to support striking U.C. workers in person. (His team also said it was the first presidential campaign staff in history to unionize.) United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents more than 35,000 Angelenos, repaid him with an early endorsement. A number of other influential unions joined them.
For Sierra Hudson, the cohead of UCLA’s student group for Sanders, each of Sanders’s policies is personal. Take “Medicare for All”: Hudson’s cousin had no health insurance and died from an asthma attack. She wonders whether he would have survived if he had been able to upgrade his inhaler. Or the Fight for 15: she’s the first in her working-class family to go to college and sees family members struggle to make ends meet. For many UCLA students, Hudson said, global warming is a key issue. “Los Angeles just recently had the Getty fire and Bernie’s the only candidate with an actual plan to combat climate change,” she said. “That speaks to a lot of young people here. We’re nervous.”