Clinton’s Next Hurdle: “Bernie or Bust” Voters

Sanders supporters who identify themselves as independents appear reluctant to get behind the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Los Angeles.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
June 6, 2016, 9 p.m.

Hillary Clinton appeared to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination Monday night. But that won’t make her quest to win over Bernie Sanders’s supporters any easier.

After long and hard-fought intra-party primary battles, it always takes time and effort to make peace with the diehards behind an opponent’s campaign. Eventually most come around in time for the general election. Clinton, though, faces a set of unique challenges in consolidating 2016 Democratic primary voters. Not only is Sanders still pledging to take his campaign to the convention in July, but many of the self-described democratic socialist’s core backers don’t have deep ties to the Democratic Party, meaning they’re less likely to feel obligated to automatically line up behind the nominee.

For Clinton, then, the challenge is not so much uniting the party. It’s convincing some of Sanders’s supporters to join forces with the party to defeat Donald Trump.

“It’s hard to say this election is rigged, and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, we still want you to vote,’” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. “The key is to say, ‘This is a big tent, and we are eager for all of you to be in it.’”

This fault line was evident throughout the nominating season. In the 27 states with exit polling, Sanders won self-identified independents in all but three contests. The Vermont senator, who joined the party only last year, also lost self-identified Democrats in all but two contests and managed a tie in a third.

Most of the national public polls that have been released since Donald Trump defeated his final GOP primary rivals show that a vast majority of Democrats are already behind Clinton. For instance, 83 percent of Democrats said they would vote for Clinton in the fall, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, compared to just 66 percent of Sanders supporters. And more Sanders supporters had an unfavorable view of Clinton than a favorable one. Clinton also trailed Trump among independents by 9 points in the survey.

Bringing over Sanders backers would make a notable difference for Clinton. An NBC analysis found that if 70 percent of the “Sanders-only” voters went to Clinton’s side, her advantage over Trump would increase from 3 points to 8 points.

The risk for Clinton is not so much that those in the “Bernie or bust” camp will vote for Trump, but that they won’t vote at all. Sanders banked heavily on voters who were casting a primary ballot for the first time, as well as voters under the age of 30. Both groups are usually laggards on Election Day.

From the perspective of some Democrats, Clinton won’t need to do all that much to appeal to Sanders’s supporters because Trump’s incendiary rhetoric towards women and minorities will be enough to drive them into her corner.

“I’m sure a lot of them will take a little while to get to her, but the best unifier is Trump,” said Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “Any group that the Republican nominee would need, he’s pushing them away.”

And with the primary season coming to a close, Clinton will be able to focus entirely on attacking Trump, as she did forcefully in a foreign policy speech last week. Still, there’s a balance Clinton must strike when drawing contrasts with the real-estate mogul.

“Bernie Sanders supporters are not going to vote for the status quo; they’re going to vote for change,” Lake said. “It’s important for her to make sure that as she draws the distinction with Donald Trump around experience and qualifications, that it doesn’t get misinterpreted as status quo.”

Of course, Sanders’s backers will be looking for an olive branch. Clinton already shifted left on several issues of importance to them during the primary race. Now, Sanders’s allies and other progressive groups want to see that reflected in the official party platform, and are encouraging Clinton to select a liberal running mate, such as Elizabeth Warren.

Clinton “has very much held herself out to voters as someone who embraces economic-populism issues, like extending Social Security, debt-free college, holding the banks accountable,” said Adam Green, the cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “If she takes actions to keep the volume up on those issues, that will send a signal to Sanders supporters that she’s for real.”

Almost eight years ago to the day, Barack Obama was in arguably a worse position than Clinton is now. At the end of the 2008 primaries, only 60 percent of Clinton voters said they’d support Obama in November, according to a CNN poll. The difference? Clinton exited the race several days after the final states voted, and endorsed Obama.

Regardless of Tuesday’s results, Sanders doesn’t seem eager to concede or ease up on his criticisms of the “rigged” Democratic system anytime soon. That will make the primary wounds all the more difficult to heal.

“The Democratic National Convention,” Sanders vowed over the weekend, “will be a contested convention.”

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