No Bern-ing Love for Hillary
Eight years ago, Democratic Party leaders were excited by their lineup of presidential contenders. The field, initially colorful and deep, soon winnowed itself to two finalists: U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Neither had a perfect resume for the job. Clinton got her start in politics as first lady, hardly a traditional steppingstone to the Oval Office. Obama had been in the Senate only two years when he began his White House quest—and had almost no legislative accomplishments attached to his name. Both Obama and Clinton lacked executive experience.
Yet each was a committed campaigner with the ability to raise ungodly amounts of money and a trailblazing story line. Hillary Clinton would be the first woman president; Barack Obama, the first African-American. This was powerful medicine, especially in the identity-politics-obsessed Democratic Party. And while it’s too glib to say that race trumped gender in 2008, it is a matter of record that things got testy between the two candidates—and more so between their campaign aides—and that as the primary season entered its stretch run, many Clinton supporters harbored bitter feelings for a man they believed had cut in line ahead of Hillary.
Exit polls in some states showed that as many as half of Clinton’s supporters said they wouldn’t vote for Obama in the general election. This resentment didn’t last. In the parlance of political professionals, these voters “came home” to the Democratic Party in November. When the ballots were counted, some 90 percent of Clinton supporters voted for Obama.
That’s the way politics usually works. And though the 2016 Republican nominee will test that truism, it’s how Democratic Party officials expect Bernie Sanders’ voters to behave after the party’s July convention in Philadelphia. Recent events suggest that this may be an open question.
The Democrats’ recent Nevada state convention has brought into focus the deep divisions between the Clinton and Sanders camps. The flashpoint came when the party establishment disqualified enough Sanders delegates on technicalities to give Mrs. Clinton an extra couple of delegates. This wasn’t the Great Train Robbery—Clinton narrowly defeated Sanders in Nevada’s caucuses—but it played directly into the prevailing narrative that Team Clinton will do anything to win and that party politics in this country is a rigged game.
From the start, Sanders supporters have groused that the fix was in. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz scheduled too few debates, they said, and at odd dates and times. The list of complaints went on: the DNC slyly funneled money to Clinton; Democrats have too many superdelegates—almost all of whom endorsed Clinton before the campaign was even joined; and so on. Unexplained decisions regarding the location of polling places in Arizona led progressive writer Tony Brasunas to assert that the Clinton campaign is employing voter suppression to get its way.
There is a history here among party progressives with institutional memories. Eight years ago, in Nevada, David Plouffe, top field organizer for the Obama campaign, also complained that the Clintons were trying to game the state’s delegation-selection process.
“We currently have reports of over 200 separate incidents of trouble at caucus sites, including doors being closed up to 30 minutes early, registration forms running out so people were turned away, and ID being requested and checked in a non-uniform fashion,” he wrote. “These kinds of Clinton campaign tactics were part of an entire week’s worth of false, divisive, attacks designed to mislead caucus-goers and discredit the caucus itself.”
This is the backdrop for the recent party convention in Nevada, a state where the headquarters of the state party in the capital of Carson City share the same front door with Clinton campaign offices.
Sanders’ supporters who felt disenfranchised responded aggressively. One man held a chair over his head menacingly. (Contrary to news reports, the man did not throw the chair; he placed it back on the floor.) But there was jostling and shouting. Angry accusations were hurled at party officials. Some of this talk was threatening and vile. One man phoned the office of Chairwoman Roberta Lange and called her vulgar names before saying, “I think people like you should be hung in a public execution to show the world that we won’t stand for this sort of corruption.”
It is such reactions that raised the issue of whether the poster woman for the Democratic establishment can unite the party. More specifically, can Clinton earn the votes of people rallying to the banner of a rival who is calling for a political “revolution” in this country?
“Turning Sanders for President into a direct drive for Hillary is probably doomed,” liberal grassroots activist and Sanders supporter David Fredrick told reporters. “It would alienate a lot of our users and cause us to lose a lot of the momentum we’ve been able to develop over the last two years.”
There are two ways to look at this. The first is that it’s not much of a stretch for a Sanders supporter to cast a vote for Donald Trump. Earlier in this campaign, political reporters kept running into uncommitted voters trying to decide between the two. Trump is not really a conservative—in some ways, he’s not even a Republican. He shares an iconoclastic streak with Sanders, who until last year didn’t refer to himself as a Democrat at all. Both men are running, really, as populists, and both have settled on the same storyline about Clinton, which is summed up in Trump’s nickname for her: “Corrupt Hillary.”
The other way to think about 2016 is to look at the public opinion polls and consider recent electoral history. An April poll by McClatchy Newspapers and Marist University showed that approximately one out of four Bernie Sanders supporters said they’d shun Clinton at the voting booth next November. (By contrast, only 14 percent of Clinton supporters said they’d abandoned Sanders if he were the nominee.) Sixty-nine percent of Sanders’ people said they’d support her, which is a lot—just not enough to make her president.
But do those “feel the Bern” liberals know their own minds? The 2008 election, when Democrats returned to the fold, suggests that they might not. With Democrats relentlessly attacking Trump as a racist and sexist buffoon, what self-respecting liberal would vote Republican this year?
The answer lies in the hearts of disaffected voters who earlier this spring were trying to choose between the two insurgent candidates. Simply put, the question is whether racial and gender identity politics will trump, no pun intended, the passionate economic populism of Bernie’s army. The results of that dilemma may determine the identity of America’s next president.