Ahead Of The First Debate, California Voters Are Feeling The Bern

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MICHAEL DWYER
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MICHAEL DWYER

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA — Just before the first Democratic debate of the 2016 election, a poll shows Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) gaining on front-runner Hillary Clinton in the most populous state in the nation: California.

The Field Research Corporation found support for Clinton in California has dropped 19 percent since May, while support for Sanders has shot up four-fold. Among voters under 40 years old and unmarried voters, Sanders and Clinton are tied. Meanwhile, voter enthusiasm for Clinton has also eroded — from 46 to 37 percent.

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To find out what’s driving the Sanders surge, ThinkProgress spoke to some of his California supporters who attended this past weekend’s Politicon — a convention celebrating the intersection between politics and entertainment.

Ron and Florence Aleman say they’re sure Sanders will win California. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Ron and Florence Aleman say they’re sure Sanders will win California. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

“He’s going to take California, there’s no question about it,” said Ron Aleman, a Vietnam veteran from Torrance, California who attended the convention with his wife Florence. “This man is the only person that’s running for president who is actually telling people what they need to hear.”

Like many Sanders supporters across the country, the Alemans said they were attracted to the Vermont senator’s relentless focus on money in politics

“A movement has to be there,” he said. “Because as long as money controls our politicians, we aren’t going to affect much of anything.”

Stephanie Schoen, a cybersecurity and online commerce consultant from Sierra Madre, California, agreed.

“I love that he came out right away and said, ‘I have a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. They have to say they’re going to overturn Citizens United,’” she said, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court case that allowed unlimited corporate spending in elections. “We know that the progressive agenda, or the populist agenda, really hasn’t been able to be achieved because of the big money in politics.”

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Schoen said Sanders is the first candidate for whom she has ever actively campaigned, and she hopes she can help spread his message in California’s large communities of color — where Sanders fares less well in the polls.

“African Americans are very plugged into the Clintons and have a soft spot in their hearts for them,” she said. “Hillary is someone they know. But as news about Bernie starts getting into those communities I think he’ll do well. I mean, people are people. Workers are workers. We all have the same desires for our families. People want to say he has radical ideas, but when you hear them, they aren’t so radical. Most people want Social Security and health care for everybody. They want minimum wages to be raised. I think in California especially he’ll get a real strong hold.”

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

While Schoen dismissed the idea that Sanders’ growing popularity is a result of the various scandals that have plagued Clinton’s campaign this year, freelance photographer Hal Bergman said dissatisfaction with Clinton’s record helped push him to become a Sanders supporter.

“Bernie Sanders is the only candidate really making sense right now,” said the Bergman, who lives in downtown Los Angeles. “All the Republicans and even Hillary Clinton are very pro-bank, pro-corporate interests, pro-privatization of public goods.”

But it was Sanders’ call for universal, single-payer health care that won Bergman over.

“Working as a freelancer, for 10 years I didn’t have health insurance at all,” he said. “Because of the Affordable Care Act, for the last two years I have had insurance, which is great and a step in the right direction, but I pay almost $300 a month. I’m still totally getting screwed by the health insurance system. If there was nationalized health insurance, that would allow people like me to be more entrepreneurial. Or if they were working for a company that was abusing them, they could feel more comfortable leaving.”

Bergman credits Sanders’ growing popularity in California to this focus on bread-and-butter economics issues.

“There are a lot of disenfranchised young people who aren’t able to find jobs, or the jobs they are finding are underpaid,” he said. “Young people in are really being taken advantage of in the work force. California is at the forefront of this new app economy, on-demand ride-sharing and all of that. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because there’s more flexibility, but people who would normally have an hourly wage are getting screwed. The neoliberalization of the workforce is happening a little bit quicker here than the rest of the country.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Sanders’ dramatic rise in the Golden State, however, may not help when it comes to securing the party’s nomination. Despite sending a whopping 405 delegates plus 71 superdelegates to the party convention, the state’s June primary is so late in the process that the race for the Democratic nomination could be decided long before California voters have a chance to have their say.