A new poll from USA TODAY and Suffolk University shows that nearly a quarter of Bernie Sanders supporters haven't turned over to support Joe Biden.
Chad Johansen voted first for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and later that year for Donald Trump, drawn to both of the presidential candidates’ populist, anti-establishment messages.
He backed Sanders again during the New Hampshire primary three months ago. But the phone repair shop owner won’t be casting a ballot for Trump again this November. The president’s promise to improve health care and the economy for small businesses have yet to materialize, Johansen said. And the coronavirus crisis hasn’t helped his view of Trump.
“Everything in the West Wing is just craziness,” he said, referring to the White House. “The way he acts. The handling of the pandemic. It’s just ridiculous. The way people on the front lines are having to handle this themselves. He isn’t following the facts and isn’t listening to anyone but his genius self.”
While Trump is once again expected to attract some Americans who voted for Sanders in the primary and then helped him win crucial battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016, polls, analysts and interviews with nearly a dozen Sanders voters suggest he won’t be as successful this time when he faces presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Four years ago, Johansen and tens of thousands of fellow Sanders voters – about 1 in 8 – pivoted from the self-described socialist Democrat during the presidential primary and cast a ballot in the general election for a billionaire Republican who championed capitalist ideals.
They liked Trump’s call for a rebirth in American manufacturing, his willingness to confront unfair trade practices by other countries, his blunt takedown of Washington’s power structure – themes Sanders pounded as well.
And they didn’t particularly care for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
Sanders dropped out of the race in April, conceding the nomination to Biden and endorsing the former vice president.
A Suffolk University/USA TODAY survey last month of 638 voters who backed Sanders in primaries or caucuses this year found that 4% plan to vote for Trump – down from the 12% who voted for Trump over Clinton, according to a 2017 Cooperative Congressional Election study. The Suffolk poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Brian Schaffner, a Tufts University political science professor who helped manage the 2017 study, expects to see fewer Sanders-Trump voters this time around.
Four years ago, Sanders-Trump voters included conservative Democrats already moving to the GOP and die-hards who wanted a populist to win, he said. It also included progressives who thought Trump would be defeated and couldn't bear to vote for Clinton, so casting a protest vote didn’t seem like a big deal, he said.
“Primary among most (2020) voters on the left is making sure Trump loses,” Schaffner said. “So most of Bernie’s supporters are going to support the Democratic nominee because the alternative is just something no one on that side of the aisle wants to live with for another four years.”
The ‘shoulder shrug candidate'
Several Sanders voters who spoke to USA TODAY said they view Biden much as they viewed Clinton: an establishment candidate backed by the very corporate interests they see as obstacles to progress.
“We need good health care. We need good education. He's not going to make that possible,” said Alana Jones, 30, a freelance writer from Marshall, Missouri. “He’s not got an honest bone in his body.”
And yet, Jones said, she’ll hold her nose and vote for the former vice president just as she did for Clinton because “obviously, Trump is so much worse.”
That lack of enthusiasm could cost Biden in the long run, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston that conducted the recent survey of Sanders voters.
Paleologos calls Biden “a shoulder shrug candidate” among Sanders supporters, since 3 in 5 Sanders voters surveyed said they were not excited by his nomination.
“When you get closer to Election Day, you need bodies, you need a ground game, whether it’s real or virtual, of course you need donations, but you need a network that’s fueled by the candidate’s appeal,” he said. “And if 60% of Sanders’ (supporters) said they’re not enthused about him running – even though they’re voting for him – that’s not a solid base to build upon.”
Sanders voters generally can be split into two camps: those who said defeating Trump in November is paramount and those who said pushing policy proposals is the top priority.
Biden does well among the first group, with 94% saying they'll vote for the former vice president in November, according to the Suffolk poll. But among those who said policy positions are more important, only 55% said they're backing Biden. The rest are divided with 7% voting for Trump, 20% voting for a third-party candidate, 5% skipping the election and 13% undecided.
Chester Potash, 86, voted for Trump four years ago and he plans to do so again in November. He calls Biden “arrogant and a liar.” And, drawing a favorable comparison to Sanders, for whom he voted twice in primaries, he likes the president's willingness to take on congressional leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., whom he views as entrenched and corrupt.
“I think Congress should be more like the people. They live in a different world. They have their own standards,” the retired engineer from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, said. “They can live the life of luxury when they retire. … That isn’t right.”
Ryan Clancy, 27, won't be voting for Trump. But he's thinking about sitting out the election and not voting for Biden either.
“I’m having trouble stomaching the thought of voting for Joe Biden, as I think many people are,” said the engineer from Baltimore who voted for Sanders in 2016 and plans to vote for him again in Maryland's June 2 primary even though Sanders is no longer in the race.
Sanders “stood for something, where Biden sort of seems to stand for a lot of things that Hillary did, which obviously didn’t work against Trump,” Clancy said. “And it doesn’t seem like it’ll go any different.”
Sanders' endorsement may be important for Biden
Sanders made his support for Biden clear and swift, unlike four years ago when his endorsement of Clinton was viewed as late and tepid.
The Vermont senator has repeatedly called Trump “the most dangerous president” in modern American history and exhorted supporters to get behind Biden, his politically moderate rival.
In turn, Biden has moved a bit to the left. He now says public colleges and universities should be free for all lower-income and middle class families because of the coronavirus pandemic, though he continues to oppose “Medicare for All,” one of Sanders' signature campaign issues.
“I think people are going to be surprised. We are apart on some issues, but we are awfully close on others,” Biden told Sanders during a joint live-streamed appearance five days after Sanders suspended his campaign in April. “I'm going to need you. Not just to win the campaign but to govern.”
Sanders' endorsement could sway some reluctant supporters to get behind the former vice president, Paleologos said.
Among those in the Suffolk poll who knew about Sanders’ endorsement of Biden, 80% were voting for Biden, he said. Among those who didn’t, only 63% said they would vote for the former vice president.
Sanders “needs to make a personal appeal to those voters and/or Biden needs to demonstrate to Sanders voters how important Sanders is to his administration,” Paleologos said. “And that might be saying to Sanders voters, ‘When I’m elected, Sanders will be (in the Cabinet).' Because the balance of the Sanders voters who are not with Biden need something to be enthusiastic about.”
Biden could also make some headway by choosing a running mate who appeals to progressive voters. It won't be Sanders, because Biden has pledged to pick a woman for the ticket.
Clancy, the Maryland engineer, said he'd be likelier to vote for Biden if he chose former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democratic senator and liberal champion who vied with Sanders for the progressive vote during the campaign.
Almost every Sanders voter USA TODAY talked to spoke glowingly of former President Barack Obama. But those warm feelings do not extend to Biden, whom the former president has warmly endorsed.
Roberto Gonzalez, 50, volunteered in the Obama campaign in 2012. But he voted for Green Party nominee Jill Stein in 2016 because he didn't like Clinton's policies. And he plans to vote for Trump in November because he doesn't believe Biden is the change agent the country needs right now.
“I don’t want somebody who has been already 30 years there and not doing the right thing,” said Gonzalez, the owner of a small trucking firm in Anaheim, California.
So why support Trump?
He's unhappy with the Democrats for what he sees as a conspiracy to deny Sanders the nomination – a sentiment shared among many Sanders voters. He's also critical of Trump for “talking too much” but believes the president has been good for the economy.
“Donald Trump is a businessman. He’s very smart,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes everybody makes mistakes and he gets in trouble. I’m looking at the good things, what he’s doing for the country.”
More likable than Hillary Clinton
Schaffner, the Tufts University professor, said Biden probably has a better chance to win over Sanders voters Clinton couldn't because he's generally seen as more likable than she was as a candidate.
“2016 was a unique election in that you had the two most disliked nominees ever running against each other,” the Tufts professor said. “I think people aren’t going to dislike Biden probably quite as much as they did Clinton, so it’s possible there are some moderates in that group who will be OK voting for Biden.”
Christopher McGarry, 35, a computer salesman from Swanzey, N.H., said he voted for both Sanders and Trump in 2016 because he “really, really, disliked” Clinton.
He voted for Sanders three months ago in New Hampshire's primary and plans to vote for Trump again in November. The reason? He believes Biden is not fit for office because of his age and verbal gaffes.
“I wish they would give me a better option,” McGarry said. “Biden would have been a better option 15 years ago.”
Sanders supporter Keith Boos, 28, has similar concerns about Biden but concedes he's probably more genuine and a slight upgrade over Clinton, whom he ultimately supported four years ago.
“She was an establishment candidate and I think Biden is too,” the production designer from Los Angeles said.
“But I think the team behind Biden has to have learned a lot from 2016. And I think he’ll learn not to discredit those Bernie voters,” he said. “He seems to have less baggage. But he’s not without his baggage. So I’m not worlds happier.”
So what does he like about Biden?
“I like that he’s not Donald Trump,” Boos said. “I like that a lot.”
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