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The Bernie-Hillary battle isn't just about the issues. It's also about trust and character.

Scott Eisen/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

EXETER, NH — Yes, Bernie Sanders wants to bring about a political revolution and move the Democratic Party to the left on economic issues.

But when I talked to his supporters at several New Hampshire events last week, there was one other topic that came up again and again: They trust him. And they don't trust Hillary Clinton.

  • "This guy believes in what he says. And he speaks from his heart, and you can believe in what he says," said David Lancaster of Hopkinton. "All you can think of with Hillary is, she’s going, 'What are the polls and what are my political advisers telling me I should be saying?'"
  • "I trust him. I firmly believe that he’s for the everyday person," said Natalie Ewing of Exeter. "Hillary is an amazing politician. But I think she is influenced by money."
  • "I like his honesty. I like his straightforward approach," said Bob Moore of East Kingston. "The Democratic Party unfortunately is part of the problem — the machine in Washington, and people taking care of each other once you are elected and you learn how the system works."
  • "How can Wall Street make her a millionaire and her not be responsive to them?" asked John Hancock of Manchester, who said he decided to support Sanders months ago. "She’s a millionaire made on Wall Street. I work from paycheck to paycheck. I live paycheck to paycheck. She can relate to me like the man in the moon."

Now, Sanders frequently says he wants to talk only about "the issues." But, unavoidably, his critique of the Democratic Party from the left and his criticisms of money's influence on the political system have some implications about the character and integrity of current Democratic officeholders.

Naturally, then, many of Sanders's supporters have come to define the difference between him and Clinton as one of integrity. They think Sanders has it and Clinton lacks it.

And that's a worrying sign for Clinton's hopes that people feeling the Bern will vote for her this fall.

Attacking Clinton's character is a time-tested strategy

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty

Back in the fall of 2007, Barack Obama's top strategists wrote a campaign memo on how they hoped to defeat Hillary Clinton. The memo, which was obtained and posted by the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, revealed that Obama's slogan "change you can believe in" was in fact deliberately crafted to raise doubts about Clinton's character — to suggest Clinton "can't be trusted or believed when it comes to change."

The authors wrote that their chief messaging priority was "to frame the argument along the character fault line," and that they hoped to suggest Clinton was "driven by political calculation not conviction." The character issue, Obama's aides wrote, is "where we can and must win this fight."

But if Obama wanted to ensure that Democrats would win in 2008, this was a dangerous game to play. If Clinton had emerged triumphant from that long, grinding primary process, the doubts Obama had planted about her character could well have stuck in the minds of his supporters. Even if most ended up rallying to the Democratic banner — like most of Clinton's own supporters ended up doing — it's hard to be all that enthusiastic about a candidate you think lacks conviction.

This time around, Sanders has frequently taken pains to say that he likes and respects Clinton, and that she'd be a far better president than any Republican. But he's criticized her for taking hefty speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, and argued that she isn't truly a progressive.

And those attacks naturally have implications for how his supporters perceive her integrity and character. For instance, Politico's Gabriel Debenedetti reported that when Clinton appeared on a TV screen during Sanders's Des Moines caucus night rally, his supporters began chanting, "She's a liar," which "appeared to prompt the nervous Sanders staff into turning off the televisions."

In contrast, Clinton's supporters say they like Bernie a lot

A Hillary Clinton rally last Wednesday in Manchester.
Andrew Prokop / Vox

Most of the Clinton supporters I interviewed at various events last week had no similar doubts about Sanders's character or sincerity — indeed, many emphasized how much they liked him. Their doubts were instead about his qualifications and his ability to successfully win fights with the GOP and deliver on what he promised.

"I'm torn because I like Bernie generally," said Nancy Crawford of Exeter, who volunteers for the Clinton campaign. "But I worry how he's going to get anything done."

"I think he's got some wonderful ideas. I also think this country cannot sustain the kind of revolution he's calling for," said Deb Howes of Hudson. "He’s not gonna have all those people energized and out every single day to get his agenda through. It just ain’t gonna happen."

"I love Bernie. How can you not love him?" said Linda Lyman of Milford. "But when I was younger, I voted for this guy, McGovern, okay? It's the same thing with Bernie. He gets the young people interested, and that's great. But he's a dreamer."

"I like Bernie. I really do. But he belongs in the Senate. Hillary's clearly the best qualified," said Richard Schwartz of Nashua. "Unlike many other people," he added, "I trust her."

Will Sanders's supporters back Clinton if she wins the nomination?

The scene outside the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester before a New Hampshire Democratic Party dinner last Friday.
Andrew Prokop / Vox

One big question hanging over these character exchanges, of course, is whether Sanders's enthusiastic supporters will back Clinton if he ends up losing (as most political observers still expect will happen eventually).

Sanders will certainly try to convince them to do so. He's said he'd never do anything, like running third party, that could end up leading to the election of a Republican president. And after some heated exchanges at last week's debate, Sanders tried to lower the temperature near the end. "Sometimes in these campaigns, things get a little bit out of hand," he said. "I happen to respect the secretary very much, I hope it's mutual. And on our worst days, I think it is fair to say we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate."

Yet the Sanders supporters I interviewed were split on whether they could see themselves voting for Clinton. Those who called themselves Democrats were more likely to say they'd do so. "Yes, I would," said Ewing. "Without a doubt," said Lancaster. "If he doesn't win, I'll vote for the platform and the party," said Anthony Parolis of Haverhill, Massachusetts.

The Sanders fans who called themselves independents, however, were less likely to say they'd back Clinton in the fall. "I won't commit to that right now. It depends on who she's running against," said Moore. "I'm not exactly the biggest fan [of Clinton]. I would have to think long and hard about that," said Joe Connor of Newbury, Massachusetts.

"Politicians today are all cut from the same cloth in my opinion," Connor continued. "Sanders is the only one that sticks out."

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