BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — After months of spending an unparalleled amount on campaign operations across the country and regularly outspending Hillary Clinton on ad expenditures, Bernie Sanders is tightening his belt.
The campaign slashed the payroll Wednesday by axing hundreds of workers — primarily on the field organizing team — scaling the staff down to its smallest size in months. It downsized its campaign jet, even as the Burlington, Vermont-based candidate spends increasing amounts of time hopping from coast to coast. Top aides no longer travel everywhere with the candidate, choosing instead to stick to Washington and Vermont. Even Sanders’ wife, Jane, hasn’t been traveling with him, opting to play the main surrogate role from home. On Thursday, the campaign cut its ad spending in Indiana, the next battleground state on the calendar.
The set of moves follows a series of disappointing primary finishes that have increasingly narrowed Sanders’ path to the Democratic nomination and raised questions about how long he’ll remain in the race. The campaign continues to insist that it will push forward at least to the end of the primary season, armed with a new set of imperatives that include winning over a trove of delegates from California and on shaping the party’s platform — rather than on kneecapping Clinton.
“They’re very likely to win Oregon, and I think that they’re going to focus on trying to win California, so you don’t spend resources in other places if those are your two strategic aims,” explained veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who played leading roles for the presidential bids of John Kerry, Al Gore and Ted Kennedy. The Sanders campaign, he said, was acting not like a campaign aimed at winning the nomination, but like one that’s trying to do what it can in the strategically useful states remaining on the board while keeping its finances — especially its 91 percent burn rate — in mind.
“Everybody talks about this winding down, and it is, in a way,” added Shrum, who is based in Los Angeles. “And it’s not, in another way: The reason he’s going to focus on California is because it’s going to get a huge amount of attention, and if he can win here, it would go a long way to strengthening his position [at the convention].”
Cash has never been an issue for a senator who could boast of a fundraising haul of more than $182 million through March, thanks to his online cash juggernaut. (The next public campaign finance report is not slated to land until late May.) But by the end of the last reporting period, Sanders had also spent about $166 million, making him the candidate who both raised and spent the most — leaving him far behind Hillary Clinton in terms of actual cash on hand: $17 million vs. $29 million at the beginning of April.
Sanders aides have previewed a strategy of bringing the insurgent’s many delegates to Democrats’ July convention ready to push for the inclusion of a series of specific policy points on the party platform, and they see strong performances in California — where Clinton leads in polls — and Oregon — where Sanders is likely to win handily — as important for maximizing his leverage. So rather than keep money and staff in Vermont and the 10 remaining states, the decision was made that those campaign workers left on the payroll should be confined to a handful of targets.
But the biggest states remaining on the calendar are among the most expensive left — and they’re spread across the map, necessitating pricey coast-to-coast travel. California’s primary has the most delegates of all the remaining states, yet winning or even running close there — Sanders’ best bet at running up his delegate total — will require a heavy investment in many of the state’s 11 costly media markets. New Jersey, the state with the second-most delegates, is another expensive state that’s 3,000 miles, and a long campaign plane ride, away. Competing hard in both places would necessitate one final splurge.
Campaign officials insist that the recent moves don’t reflect financial or political struggles. When communications director Michael Briggs, who called the staff cuts a “right-sizing,” was asked if the staff cuts were coming from a posture of weakness on Wednesday, he replied that they were coming from a “posture of reality.” And a senior aide told POLITICO that the decision to slice about $200,000 off the $1.2 million ad buy in Indiana came after the campaign recognized that Clinton wasn’t spending in the state, so the full buy wasn’t needed.
Still, that would be an uncharacteristic move for a presidential campaign that is raising and spending money on all cylinders. For months, Sanders regularly poured money into campaign ads even in states where he was far behind, routinely spending more than Clinton’s camp in the days and weeks leading up to voting — roughly $3 million more in New York, which he lost by 16 points, and over $2 million more in the group of five states that voted this Tuesday, of which he lost four, for example.
With no ad reservations at all in the remaining primary states, the Clinton camp appears poised to let Sanders keep up the spending gap through California, even if it’s at a reduced level. The Clinton team has almost entirely shifted its attention to the general election, though it continues to maintain a team in the remaining primary states.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based team started publicly naming its swing state teams on Friday, and even scheduled a candidate event next Wednesday for Ohio — perhaps the most important general election swing state of all, which voted in the Democratic primary over a month ago.
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