RICHMOND, Calif. — Carol Coyote lives in Berkeley, is 75 years old, and has a Bernie Sanders tattoo on her right arm.
She has been a full-time volunteer for his campaign for more than a year, part of a political army the Vermont socialist has mustered across this state for his revolution.
The California Democratic primary on March 3 is the most delegate-rich contest in the party’s presidential process. This year, it is taking place earlier than ever before, and Sanders, who has held four California events in just the past week, is dominating this contest so much that the nomination race could essentially be over after it takes place.
Indeed David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, contends California looms as the tipping point of the Democratic nominating season.
“If no other candidates are viable statewide, Bernie Sanders will net enough delegates out of California alone that almost guarantees he ends the campaign with a plurality,” said Plouffe. “If California delegates end up being divided up more evenly, it’s a big boost for whoever emerges as the eventual main challenger to Sanders.”
Yes, California is not just the nation’s biggest state, but its place on the calendar, just three days after South Carolina, puts it in a commanding position to decide which Democrat will take on President Trump. This is just what state leaders dreamed of when they signed legislation in 2017 moving it from the last primary state to one of the first.
Just consider some numbers: There are more registered voters in California than there are people in 47 of the 49 other states. There are 416 California delegates up for grabs, which is one-fifth of the way to the nomination.
Voters have been casting early ballots since Feb. 3, with more than 970,000 Democratic primary ballots returned as of Wednesday, according to the authoritative firm Political Data Inc. That’s more than three times as many Democratic ballots that were cast on the day of the New Hampshire primary — and there are still days to go in California.
In 2016, 5 million Californians cast a ballot in the Democratic primary between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who won by nearly 8 points.
Sanders’ relentless focus on California this cycle seems to be paying off. A KQED/NPR poll released Wednesday found the Vermont senator dominating the field with 36 percent, outpacing Senator Elizabeth Warren’s 18 percent, former vice president Joe Biden’s 10 percent, and all other candidates, who were in single digits.
And consider this: For any candidate to earn a single delegate, he or she must get at least 15 percent support either statewide or in any of the state’s 53 congressional districts. The most recent poll from the respected Public Policy Institute of California showed Sanders with a bigger lead — and the only one above 15 percent statewide. If that number holds, he could take all the delegates.
Even the Bloomberg campaign, which has spent oodles more than any other presidential primary campaign in this state, is openly talking about conceding the contest and the implications of doing so.
“There is a real possibility, because California is so big and so early in the schedule this year, that Bernie racks up a lead in that state on Super Tuesday that quite frankly is just uncatchable,” said Bloomberg’s campaign manager Kevin Sheekey on MSNBC Thursday. “I think we may know a lot [about] this campaign very early. It may be that there is not very much of a campaign in March after that date.”
To be sure, in a Democratic presidential nomination race with multiple candidates splitting up delegates in each state, many analysts conclude that the race could go all the way to the Democratic convention in July. But even if that happens, California’s vote share will largely set the table for the politicking in back hallways of the Milwaukee arena.
In recent days, the California focus of the Sanders campaign — and its leading status there — has never been more evident.
While rival campaigns essentially camped out in Nevada last week, ahead of the state’s caucuses last Saturday, Sanders held three rallies in the Bay Area, the Central Valley, and Orange County.
At his rally last Monday in Richmond, in the Bay Area, 6,000 Sanders supporters filled a warehouse. With early voting already underway, since the day of the Iowa caucuses, the Sanders campaign asked supporters to drop off their ballots on the way into the event.
Johnny Huerta, 32, a barista from San Bruno, passed by the two black boxes on a folding table. But he had already voted by mail.
Near him at the rally was Coyote, whose tattoo portrays Sanders’ trademark glasses, but takes some artistic license, making his white hair rainbow.
“Helping the Bernie campaign is essentially my job now,” Coyote said.
Steven Maviglio, a Sacramento-based Democratic political consultant and 2016 Clinton delegate, said that “no other campaign even comes close to what Sanders has in California.” To him, the Sanders juggernaut is not just the networks of volunteers, or harnessing the powerful California Nurses Association, or even the Sanders-affiliated non-profit Our Revolution — it’s also the supporters with a table at his local farmer’s market every weekend.
This is by design. In an interview with the Globe in August, Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir repeatedly talked about their organization not just in the four designated early states, but as he put it, the first five: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina — and California.
And like Sanders’ campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, the organization never really stopped going after his 2016 loss to Hillary Clinton.
In Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, a dozen volunteers for former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg met at a park next to the ocean before they headed out for the campaign’s second-ever organized door knocking event in the city.
Meanwhile, across the city, Cesar Armendariz, 30, of Long Beach, was already tired.
The head of the local Our Revolution group, the very active outside organization created after the 2016 Sanders presidential campaign that continues to support his efforts, he had been knocking doors all morning. Same as he has been doing pretty much every weekend for Sanders and local candidates since the 2016 campaign.
Before that campaign, Armendariz had not been involved in politics. Since then, he has been deeply involved, running for school board and, with other local Our Revolution members, winning spots for local Democratic Party positions. For example, in his assembly district, Sanders supporters won 11 of 14 seats, which, in turn, allows them to use the party label to endorse like-minded candidates.
“Look around,” Armendariz said of at least his section of California. “There is nothing like the Bernie campaign.”