Bernie Sanders leads presidential campaigns staffing up in California

The leading Democratic presidential campaigns are picking up their organizing in California as the race enters the fall. But most of the field is playing catch-up to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has the largest staff on the ground.

Sanders’ campaign says it now has 15 paid staffers in California, one of 14 voting on March 3, a.ka. Super Tuesday. They’ve already held more than 2,000 events statewide, including town halls, rallies and community organizing meetings, according to the campaign.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, meanwhile, has 10 full-time staffers in her home state, after announcing seven new hires earlier this month, including a state communications director, deputy state director and organizing director. Her team have also been hosting a series of volunteer organizing events around the state, hosted at local union halls.

Harris is returning to Los Angeles, where she now has a home, for a Labor Day rally in support of Kaiser healthcare workers

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden have been jockeying with Harris and Sanders for the top spot in recent opinion polls in the state. But until recently, neither had any paid staff working in California.

Warren just announced her first hire in California in late August. Her new state director, Nicole DeMont, will be based in Los Angeles.

Warren’s campaign has also held volunteer recruitment events throughout the state and the senator, herself, has attended town halls in Oakland and Los Angeles, among other events.

Biden’s campaign did not report paying any staff in California on its campaign finance reports through June 30. The campaign says it now has a handful of staffers in the state, although it is not disclosing who they are or what roles they are playing. Other campaign staff based outside of the state are also helping with California outreach, as are a handful of political surrogates and longtime allies in the state.

Biden skipped last month’s Democratic National Committee summer meeting in San Francisco, sending his campaign manager, Greg Schultz, instead. Likewise, senior campaign advisers attended the state party convention in June, while the former vice president campaigned elsewhere.

The former vice president, himself, has visited California several times, primarily for fundraisers. He popped into a Los Angeles taco shop with Mayor Eric Garcetti in May, but has yet to hold a major public rally or town hall.

Instead, he has spent most of his time campaigning in the four early states that vote in February 2020 — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Biden’s campaign believes what happens in February will drive a surge of momentum into March, particularly in states like California, which don’t have a strong tradition of retail politics.

That’s a contrast with primary rivals like Harris and Sanders, who are already investing considerable time and money to reach California voters, which has nearly 500 Democratic delegates up for grabs in its primary, more than any other state.

The majority of those delegates are awarded proportionally, based on performance statewide and in each congressional district.

“I need your help to win here in California,” Sanders implored the audience at his rally in downtown Sacramento on Aug. 22, predicting that “the candidate who wins here in the largest state in the country will, in all likelihood, win the nomination.”

Harris, in particular, faces pressure to win in her home state. She held her campaign kick-off rally in Oakland and has racked up the lion’s share of endorsements from elected officials in California. Political observers, however, say she doesn’t have much of an edge among the average Democratic voter.

The former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general remains “a relative newcomer statewide, in a state where it’s hard to get known,” said Darry Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan election data source the California Target Book and a veteran Democratic political strategist in the state.

But thanks to his three-plus decades in the U.S. Senate and eight years as vice president, “Voters here know Joe Biden well,” said Sragow.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who served with Biden in President Barack Obama’s cabinet, agreed. “People are familiar with him because he’s been on the ballot,” said Solis, who was stumping for Biden in Las Vegas, Nev. on Thursday.

“Obviously he has name I.D. and people, I do believe, are looking for someone who can defeat Trump,” said Solis.

Indeed, those factors continue to boost the former vice president in California polls. A Survey USA poll conducted for the San Diego Union-Tribune and KGTV after Democrats’ second debate in Detroit found the former vice president narrowly leading Warren, 25 to 21 percent, with Sanders and Harris close behind.

Forty-three percent of respondents said Biden had the best chance of defeating the current president in a general election, more than double any other candidate.

As the polling memo underscored, however, “There is a noticeable ‘intensity advantage’ for Harris” in California. Forty-five percent of the state’s likely Democratic primary voters said they would volunteer for her campaign, ahead of Sanders, Biden and Warren.

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Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.