clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bernie Sanders's old fans are voting for Clinton now — so they can pressure her later

sanders Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Since November 2015, Zack Malitz has only taken two weeks off from the campaign trail.

After the Democratic convention this July, the former Bernie Sanders staffer spent a few days at home, stared at his computer for a bit, and took a couple hikes in the woods. By the end of the month, he and a dozen other former Sanders staffers were back to getting young people ready to vote in the generation election for Hillary Clinton.

"You’re talking about people who worked 12-hour days for eight months, back-to-back-to-back, who then dove right back into another campaign because Bernie asked his supporters to,” says Malitz, 27. “It’s been nonstop.”

Of course, not everyone who supported Sanders’s campaign has been as eager to link up with Clinton. There is certainly a faction in left-wing circles who think she’s far too conservative to earn their vote. And there is a substantial portion of Sanders supporters who aren’t getting behind Clinton.

But talk that the left-flank of the Democratic Party is poised to abandon Clinton is wildly overblown. Facing a Donald Trump presidency, the vast majority of the American left has decided to support a politician that they sometimes detest and often distrust — even as they’re already planning to push her the day she steps into the White House.

"Bernie supporters are going to march to the polls and defeat Trump," Malitz says. "And then we're going to turn around, organize just as ferociously as we did during the primary, and hold her feet to the fire."

Most of Bernie-world has rallied to Clinton’s defense

Voting. It's happened a lot. (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)

In the summer months when Sanders most stridently ratcheted up his attacks against Clinton and the Democratic establishment, it was reasonable to worry that he risked splitting the party’s coalition in two.

Fear of a left poised to ditch Clinton continues to percolate in the press. In an essay published by the Nation on Sunday, Indiana professor Jeffrey S. Isaac argued that “my friends of the left” needed to get behind Clinton. There have been similar calls in the Guardian, the Forward, and Quartz. All of these stories create the impression that the recent narrowing of the polls — and the tightness of the race overall — partially reflect Clinton’s serious vulnerabilities on her left.

But there’s really not much evidence for it. Polling shows that essentially every voting bloc that can be considered “the left” is about as supportive of Clinton as it was of Barack Obama.

“The problems Hillary Clinton is having do not have to do with the left,” says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State, in an interview. “Liberals are overwhelmingly supportive of her. There is not much of any evidence of a drop-off in support for her from the left-wing of the ideological spectrum.”

Roughly 90 percent of Democrats say they support the nominee — about as many as did so in 2008 and 2012. About 85 percent of liberals are voting for Clinton in November, according to YouGov polling. Millennials, who powered Sanders’s campaign, are now about as supportive of her as they were of Barack Obama. And they’re on track to turn out in as high numbers as they did in 2012, says John Della Volpe, who studies youth voting patterns at the Harvard Institute of Politics.

Like Jill Stein or not, the drag she has been on Clinton basically amounts to a rounding error. Stein is bleeding support — falling from around 5 points in June to close to 2 points now, according to RealClearPolitics. Some polls suggest Stein is not even doing better than she did in 2012. (And history suggests even that number will likely only dramatically fade from here until Election Day.)

The convergence of the Democratic Party behind Clinton partly reflects the decisions of her best-known left-wing critic. Perhaps no one has been as vocal in his advocacy for Clinton as Sanders himself.

“The Sanders movement is united in the clear understanding that, to win the things we fought for, it’s necessary to decisively defeat Trump and elect her,” says Becky Bond, a former senior adviser to the Sanders campaign and the author of Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything.

The beginning crack-up in Bernie-world

Bernie Sanders standing behind a podium at a 2016 campaign rally where signs read, “A future to believe in.” Andrew Burton/Getty Images

To be sure, not every Sanders ally or voter is following him into the Democratic Party tent. Polling says that only around 72 percent of Sanders supporters will vote for Clinton. So there’s a healthy minority of former Sanders voters who are going to go elsewhere.

What’s critical to understand about this group is that there’s a key split in the kind of defector from Sanders’s embrace of Clinton. Understand that, and you can understand that Clinton’s problem isn’t ideological dogmatists — even though it’s true that she struggles with some voters who backed Sanders.

Let’s lay out the post-Sanders landscape. On the one hand, there really are many activists, intellectuals, and radicals who view Clinton as too right-wing ideologically to earn their support. This faction wants to push the party toward the social democratic and dovish policies Sanders supported, and rejects Clinton for things like opposing single-payer health care and embracing welfare reform in the 1990s.

“There’s a lot of lefty thinkers who are fairly conflicted because she’s so different from Sanders,” says Liza Featherstone, a left-wing journalist who teaches at New York University. “I think a lot of us are thinking, ‘Let’s put our heads under our desk and hope we can survive.’ It’s hard to see a clear way for the left to make a difference in this election — we just don’t have much influence over what happens.”’

A lot of lefty anti-Clintonites have a sizable presence on social media and in the press. They include journalists like Rania Khalek, who has been fiercely critical of Clinton over Israel and Palestine; indigenous youth protesters infuriated by Clinton’s equivocating statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline; and Black Lives Matter leaders who are still resisting Clinton’s call. You have a similar dynamic where Sanders’s delegates in Philadelphia — among those most involved in the campaign — are about as likely to vote for Stein as they are for Clinton.

“Donald Trump emboldens racists and riles up fascists,” Khalek says. “Hillary Clinton seems determined to go to war with Russia in Syria, which would effectively ignite World War 3. The choices for president, or lack thereof, since the defeat of Sanders have left me completely disillusioned.”

But a huge share of voters, regardless of which candidate they back, simply aren’t all that ideological. And former Sanders voters who continue to oppose Clinton, by and large, show little evidence of being hardcore leftists. Polling shows that most former Sanders supporters now back Clinton. Most former Sanders supporters who aren’t voting for her say they will vote for Donald Trump or Libertarian Gary Johnson, who has double the support of Stein among young voters. These are real people and they matter, but it doesn’t seem like anti-Clinton leftist intellectuals and activists actually speak for them.

Primary-era polling of Sanders’s supporters gave us a preview of this possible split in voting behavior. As Boston College political scientist Dave Hopkins has shown, Sanders drew a lot of his support in part because his derision of Wall Street and Washington, DC — those who just generally wanted to say “fuck you” to the establishment — rather than his specific tax agenda.

“A lot of the social democrats voting for Bernie, a lot of the activists, a lot of the intellectuals — a lot of them had a clear program and vision. But a lot of his support came from a general anti-establishment feeling that was much less programatically defined,” says Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin.

This divide is critical to understand — in part because it confirms that progressive voters are not the ones defecting from Clinton, but also because it points to perhaps the biggest challenge facing the post-Bernie left.

Did the left already blow its best chance?

A banner declares “Socialism in our time.” Remeike Forbes

Back during the thick of the Democratic primary, it was easy to look at the energy pouring into the Sanders campaign and imagine that it might just represent the beginning of a new wave of “democratic socialism” in America.

Socialist organizations, college students, members of the labor movement, trade skeptics, anti-war activists, liberals who have always hated the Clintons — all became momentarily united through Sanders’s “political revolution.” As long as Sanders himself held the whole kit and caboodle together, the opposing incentives of these groups could be submerged beneath his one banner.

There’s been some splintering since the primary ended. But, in general, they’ve largely been held together by the need to stop Trump. “There are forces on the left — the labor movement, the progressive groups, the large institutions — that are supporting Hillary Clinton. Because that’s what they see as having to be done right now,” Sunkara says. “It’s like everything has been on pause from the Democratic convention until Election Day.”

Come November 9, that changes. But nobody knows whether the forces that Sanders tapped into in the primary can be conjured again — if the hardcore leftists that merged with general anti-establishment voters can do so again.

Sunkara himself is not optimistic. “I would say the prospects are fairly weak,” Sunkara said. “Our best hope is through the labor movement. But the left is not going to have a great way of reaching a lot of the people (that powered Sanders’s campaign) going forward.”

Corey Robin, a prominent left-wing professor at Brooklyn College, has a sunnier take. “I definitely think the left should feel really emboldened by the Sanders primary, which was an unbelievable success beyond what anyone would have thought,” Robin says. “The left has major, major obstacles ahead of it. But nothing had given us any indication you could have a primary challenge like this.”

Others in the Bernie-verse come down somewhere in the middle. Pastor Ray McKinnon, a former Sanders delegate, has watched all the madness of the general election — the WikiLeaks disclosures, Donald Trump’s terrible debate performance, the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s emails — and says he and his fellow organizers often discuss how Sanders could have been president if the chips had fallen slightly differently.

“Suddenly, we’ll all begin poring over the possibilities: How would the race have changed if Bernie won this county? What if we had put an extra $100,000 here? Or if we had five more staffers in this office there?” says McKinnon, 35, of North Carolina. “Could we have won?”

McKinnon is now a committed Hillary Clinton supporter. He has spent months going door-to-door for her, phone-banking on her behalf, and urging his friends to do the same. When we talked over the phone, he had just left a Clinton-Michelle Obama rally in Raleigh, North Carolina.

But he’ll be thinking about Sanders even as he goes to pull the lever for Clinton on Election Day. “Whoever wins, we’ll have this sense of grief. I know that sounds so pathetic. But I see Bernie on TV stumping his heart out for Hillary, I think: ‘This was the guy, and we missed our chance,’” McKinnon says. “I’m not sure we’ll get it again.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.