by Susan Crabtree
After supporters bitterly contested his 2016 primary loss in California, Bernie Sanders made winning the Golden State his holy grail in 2020, and his campaign booth at the Democratic National Committee’s summer convention here showcased his experience wooing voters on their terms.
On display Friday were “Bernie!” T-shirts in English, Chinese and Filipino, an appeal to the Bay Area’s Asian community, as well as buttons featuring the state’s iconic brown bear hugging a Sanders 2020 sign.
In recent weeks, however, it’s Elizabeth Warren who seems to be stealing Californians’ affection. She drew an enthusiastic response here, and a recent poll shows her outperforming both Sanders and Sen. Kamala Harris — on the latter’s home turf. A SurveyUSA poll conducted Aug. 1-5 shows Warren nipping at front-runner Joe Biden’s heels, coming within a four-point striking distance of his 25% support in the state, garnering 21% of likely Democratic voters and besting Sanders, who attracted 18%, and Harris, at 17%.
Sanders benefits from a residual 2016 infrastructure and passionate well of support after capturing 46% of the primary vote against Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Warren is undoubtedly making inroads since her commanding performances in both Democratic debates this year.
While the Democratic candidates’ campaign trips are heavily focused on the early primary and caucus states of Iowa and New Hampshire (Biden skipped the California DNC meeting to stump in the Granite State), California and its abundance of wealthy liberal donors is more than just a political ATM this year.
State lawmakers moved next year’s primary to March 3, Super Tuesday, to bolster its role in choosing the standard-bearer. Early primary voting can begin in February, and, because California is not a winner-take-all state, campaigns are trying to compete for their portion of the delegates.
This past week, Warren held an event on Wednesday in Los Angeles, then headed to the DNC summer convention here to pitch party delegates. She plans to participate in a climate-change townhall, also in San Francisco, in early September and has committed to be in the state almost monthly.
Meanwhile, Sanders has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks. He taped an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show last month and this week held a health care townhall in Little Tokyo, east of downtown Los Angeles, before heading north for a rally in Sacramento and two events in San Francisco — the DNC meeting and a packed townhall on college affordability.
Perhaps because of his breakneck pace, Sanders decided to go with a more scripted speech to the DNC, which fell a bit flat, surprising some delegates and drawing unusually tepid applause. Officially an independent, Bernie has never been part of the party faithful, and his fuming over the DNC’s tilt toward Hillary Clinton during the 2016 cycle and recent attacks on Harris over her fundraising in the Hamptons have clearly alienated some Democratic loyalists.
The mood was immediately dampened for the Vermont senator when a large contingent of Harris supporters stepped on his opening remarks by getting up and chanting for Harris as they walked out of the ballroom. Harris, at ease in her hometown of San Francisco, had just delivered a forceful call to arms, blasting Donald Trump as unfit for office.
“Democrats are up for a good fight – nothing we have gained has been without a fight,” she said. Talking about Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” she said it translates into “looking back.”
“We ask them, ‘Back to what? Back before the Voting Rights Act? Back before Roe v. Wade? Back before the federal minimum age?’ Because we are not looking back.”
Sanders’ stump speech seemed stale by comparison. At one point he told the crowd to stand up with him, then — realizing this was unlikely and just a standard line in his remarks — he walked back the request, quickly arguing that this particular crowd didn’t need to jump to their feet in support.
“In my view, we will only be successful if we are capable of rallying an unprecedented grassroots uprising that sweeps Trump and all that he represents out of office,” he told the audience, drawing some cheers for his usual litany of proposals to help the poor and middle class: “Medicare for All,” canceling student debt, free college tuition, overhauling immigration policies and sweeping climate change commitments.
But it was Warren who seemed to energize the DNC crowd the most on Friday. Before she had uttered a word, several audience members jumped to their feet to welcome the Massachusetts senator to the stage. She recalled the hardscrabble beginning of her career, that her parents couldn’t pay for her college, and her work as a waitress to struggle to make ends meet before attaining her “dream job” of becoming a special-needs teacher.
Like Sanders, Warren also argued for “big structural change” rather than incrementalism, a thinly veiled swipe at Biden. She touted her wealth tax and her own laundry list of government programs it could provide: free preschool and college, $50 billion for historically black colleges and universities, and instant relief for student loan debt.
“This is our chance to walk the walk,” she said. “Everyone here will talk about building a grassroots movement. I’m out here doing it every day. I’ve been to 26 states and Puerto Rico. I’ve had 127 townhalls — and best of all, I’ve taken 50,000 selfies. Because I believe this is our time, this is our way.”
“We’ve just got to dream big, fight hard and win,” she concluded. “Let’s do this!”
When the day was over, DNC delegates milling about in the hotel lobby cited different standout moments but all consistently cited Warren among the candidates who delivered the most impressive performances.
“Every progressive, liberal voter in this party sees Elizabeth Warren as somebody who – she’s got it down – when she says, ‘I have a plan,’ she really does have a plan,” Glen Maxey, a longtime delegate from Texas and former state legislator there, told RealClearPolitics. “There’s a whole bunch of people who say, ‘Here’s what we need to do,’ and they have not even thought about how to do it, but I think people really trust Elizabeth Warren that she has that plan.
“She’s just ready to go,” he added. “It’s just all about proving to everybody that she’s electable, not that she has the policy chops. I think everybody here believes that Elizabeth Warren could be president on day one. They are not sure that she can do the electoral piece of this but I’m confident that she can.”
Carol Fowler, a delegate from South Carolina, remarked that she was “a little surprised that Bernie Sanders didn’t get a better reception.”
“I felt like it was a little cold,” Fowler said of the room’s reaction to Sanders. “… Because a lot of his lines were the same as other people’s lines about beating Trump, but people didn’t seem to get as excited about him as they did about some of the others.”
In contrast, she gave Warren high marks for her connection with the crowd.
“I think she comes across as a real person, as someone who is really genuine and someone you wouldn’t mind living next door to, but also she’s obviously very smart and knows what she is talking about.”
Terje Anderson, the chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, also didn’t mention his home state senator as a standout but heaped praise on Warren for recently breaking through an early perception that she’s too wooden and pedantic to win the nomination.
“I think at the beginning of the campaign [Democratic voters] had this impression of her that she can’t connect with people – she comes across as a schoolmarm or professor. … I was really impressed [today] that she does actually connect emotionally with people,” he said. “She does know how to deliver the lines – like ‘I always wanted to be a teacher,’ and it resonates with people. Beyond policy positions, I think that’s what people here are looking for.”
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.