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How Bernie Sanders became the favorite in Colorado: A look inside the campaign

The Vermont senator’s strong support didn’t fade after his 2016 victory in Colorado. In fact, he has energized new volunteers.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to an enthusiastic crowd of thousands at the Colorado Convention Center on Feb. 16, 2020. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)
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The lights from a one-time thrift store on East Colfax Avenue glowed in the dark night, a lone beacon of activity amid a snowstorm that quieted Denver’s spirited thoroughfare. 

Inside, a dozen supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, undeterred by the weather, called voters, one after another, as they worked to reenergize and bolster the coalition that led the Vermont senator to victory in Colorado four years ago.

This year’s contest features a new method to win delegates and a more competitive ballot. But Sanders enters the Democratic presidential primary Tuesday with a clear advantage: His volunteers never turned out the lights after he lost the Democratic nomination in 2016. 

“Colorado has shown we are definitely a Bernie state,” said Pilar Chapa, the Colorado campaign director. “The 2016 energy never diminished.” 

The dedicated volunteers making phone calls and organizing events gives the Sanders campaign a massive footprint in Colorado, one that his allies believe can rival the 50-some paid staffers working to elect former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Colorado is a small prize on Super Tuesday — one of 14 states voting that day — and the 67 delegates at stake are dwarfed by the 415 available in California and 228 in Texas. 

But how the state votes will matter. The Sanders campaign hopes Colorado will help cement the candidate as the clear leader, while Bloomberg is betting his bid on a big showing. The other candidates also are looking to Colorado to help keep their campaigns alive.

Right now, Democratic strategists see Sanders as the frontrunner in Colorado, and a new poll released Thursday shows him with a double-digit lead over his next closest rival in the state.

MORE: Bernie Sanders boasts big lead in Colorado presidential primary as rivals struggle, new poll shows

Sanders is the favorite for 27% of projected Democratic primary voters, according to the survey conducted earlier this week by Magellan Strategies, a Republican firm in Colorado. The next closest candidate is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 15% in a poll with a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. A good showing Saturday in South Carolina could give Sanders even more momentum.

“There’s a group of people in the party that are like, ‘We screwed it up last time, and we’re not screwing it up this time. Bernie is going to be our guy, and he’s going to take out Trump.’ And they are convinced of that,” said Mike Dino, a Denver lawyer and Democratic campaign veteran. 

Bernie Sanders’ Colorado director, Pilar Chapa, at a Denver rally at the Colorado Convention Center on Feb. 16, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The 2020 primary is a tougher fight for Sanders in Colorado

But the 2020 contest presents new challenges — in particular in how it will work. 

Four years ago, Colorado hosted caucuses to assign delegates to the national party convention. The system required party faithful to gather at a particular time on a particular day and then attend multiple other party conventions to help their candidate win delegates. Only a fraction of the Democratic Party — about 123,000 people — participated in 2016. But the time-intensive process played to the Sanders campaign’s strengths with its a strong organization and loyal fan base. He eventually won 68% of the state’s delegates to the national convention.

This year, Colorado will hold a presidential primary unlike any other in its history. Registered voters will receive mail ballots, and unaffiliated voters can participate in the Democratic contest. All told, more than 2.4 million Colorado voters are eligible to participate in the party’s primary, according to state election officials, making it more akin in size to a general election than an intra-party contest.

The broader electorate allows more people to participate, meaning it’s not just the decision of dedicated Democrats. The electorate may lean more moderate, and it will take a larger organization to persuade and turn out voters.

Not to mention, the 2020 Democratic primary features more competition. Unlike the 2016 race, a two-candidate race with clear delineation between the campaigns, this year’s Democratic primary is a crowded affair. 

With Sanders leading the race nationally, he’s become the target of his rivals’ presidential campaigns in Colorado and beyond. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, went on the offensive against Sanders during a Saturday night visit to Aurora.

MORE: Bernie Sanders sees Bloomberg as a threat in Colorado’s presidential primary — and a perfect foil

A day later, Warren sought to distance herself from Sanders at an event in Denver. Bloomberg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar have been attacking Sanders in recent days as they campaign across the country. 

Chapa, a former state party executive director who left to work for the Sanders campaign, acknowledged the 2020 race is a different ballgame with big unknowns. “There’s nothing to compare it to,” she said.

Sanders kept alive his Colorado organization leading up to 2020

After Sanders lost the Democratic nomination four years ago, he kept his supporters activated through Our Revolution, a political nonprofit with a handful of chapters in Colorado.

Hours before Sanders’ recent campaign rally in Denver, the organization hosted an event to mobilize progressive voters that drew about 100 people. The speakers on the stage focused on ideas central to the Sanders campaign, including the need for government-run health care under “Medicare for All,” canceling all student debt and the Green New Deal proposal.

Bernice “Bernie” Sanders Rosa, 2, laughs with her mother, Jackie Rosa, during an Our Revolution event on Feb. 16 at the Mercury Cafe in Denver. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

In the audience, Kal and Jackie Rosa sat with their 2-year-old daughter, Bernice “Bernie” Sanders Rosa. 

Kal Rosa works in the information technology industry and as a part-time instructor at Regis University. Jackie is a dental hygienist. But they said they still live paycheck to paycheck because of the cost of living, particularly health care. Their daughter has been hospitalized three times in the past year for lung problems.

Sanders aligns with their values, Jackie Rosa said. “It’s what he believes in. That we are all in this together. And that he’s going to fight for us all,” she said. “It’s his values that keep us coming.”

The interest in the campaign is only growing, according to the Sanders campaign, which reported a new wave of supporters and volunteers in the state this year. Mohammed Albow is one of them. The 40-year-old computer science professor watched the 2016 campaign from the sidelines but decided to volunteer for the first time in 2020.

“In 2016, I did not think that Bernie Sanders could win. We all thought it was a statement candidacy,” he said between phone calls to voters during the snowstorm earlier this month. This year is “Democrats’ chance to put forward a new agenda for an economy that works for the people and not just a few.”

Elise Beall, 35, canvassed for Sanders four years ago and rallied support for him at her caucus location. This year, she left her job to serve as a full-time campaign volunteer working seven days a week and well more than her scheduled seven hours a day. 

“My Facebook header right now is this little stick figure and it says, “At first I would be a casual fan, but then it consumed my whole soul.’ I think it’s perfect,” she said.

Mike Wedekind, who is drawn to Sanders’ work to bridge the nation’s socioeconomic divide,  described a similar situation. He supported the candidate in 2016 but didn’t volunteer on the campaign. “And I regret it,” he said at a campaign event earlier this year in Denver. “I did not get nearly as involved as I have been so far.”

This year, “an accumulated mass of guilt” led him to get involved. “The dam finally broke,” he said.

The state’s demographics — with a large pool of under-35 voters and a significant Latino population — and progressive activists give Sanders a strong base in Colorado, and in the 2018 election, they proved a force that swept Democrats to power.

To help build his loyal following, Sanders maintained a connection to his supporters and the state. He visited Colorado in 2016 to stump for his former rival, Hillary Clinton, and then returned to the state for two rallies in 2018 to support Democrats, including Jared Polis in the governor’s race.

A sign that reads “Our Revolution,” with an illustration of Bernie Sanders hung at Mercury Cafe in Denver for the Colorado Organize to Win 2020 summit on Feb. 16, 2020. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

In Colorado, “we tend to lead on progressive issues,” Chapa said. “I think the progressive arm of the Democratic Party has learned they have a lot of power, so they turn out.”

This time, Sanders is not the party outsider. He won more endorsements from Colorado elected officials compared to his prior run. And his volunteer network is bigger — campaigning door-to-door to talk to voters about Sanders’ vision and hosting more than 700 phone banks.

“We have the infrastructure that was left behind to build on,” Chapa added. “The base never went anywhere. They’ve been active since ‘16.”

The question for potential Sanders supporters is electability

Other potential Sanders supporters remain on the fence, saying they worry he isn’t electable in November because of his platform and self-applied democratic socialist label.

Steve Blumberg, a project manager from Arapahoe County, caucused for Sanders in 2016 and attended his recent rally at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. But he said he was leaning toward supporting Buttigieg because he’s worried Sanders can’t beat President Donald Trump. “I’ll be honest,” he said, “I’m not sure that I will support Bernie.”

Tom Yondorf, a 67-year-old retired teacher from Castle Rock at the rally, said he’s leaning toward supporting Klobuchar in the primary. “I agree with Bernie about pretty much everything, but right now I’m leaning more moderate because I’m worried about electability.”

MORE: With Bernie Sanders surging, Colorado could become a proving ground for his lagging rivals

Other voters, like Ginny Czarnecki, 71, a retired teacher from Conifer, sees Sanders’ ideology as an asset, a factor that would propel him to victory in the Democratic primary. “I believe in him 100%,” she said.

Not far away at the rally, Arun Lakshman, 49, from Littleton, stood with his 10-year-old son. He said when he looks at the presidential race, he thinks about the future for his children.

“Since his 2016 campaign, he’s united a whole generation,” said Lakshman, a former social worker who now works for a consulting company. “I agree with everything he stands for — everything. And he’s going to win. He’s going to sweep Colorado and the rest of the country. I’m sure of it.”

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