Since Hillary Clinton ran the table on March 15, winning five primaries, it has been much harder to “Feel the Bern.” Sanders’s chance at the nomination has become increasingly less likely as the delegate math looks less favorable for the socialist revolutionary from Vermont. This week, Sanders did win caucuses in Idaho and Utah to keep his hopes alive, but he is still over 700 delegates behind Clinton, and Clinton is less than 700 delegates away from clinching the nomination.
As his campaign teeters and tilts between improbable and impossible, we all must begin to wonder what will happen to the impassioned and enthusiastic supporters—who are mostly young voters—who have energized his campaign and made him a far more formidable candidate than the Democrat establishment anticipated.
The Democrats can ill-afford to lose Sanders’s young voters. This is a demographic that has played a vital role in both of President Obama’s successful campaigns, and Clinton still struggles to attract them. Sanders’s frustration with Wall Street and the political status quo connects with these young voters. His belief in free college tuition resonates with young Americans who are regularly being crushed by the weight of nearly insurmountable student loans. The system has been corrupted and the cards too heavily stacked against young Americans, and in favor of billionaires. Sanders’s anger, frustration, and revolutionary ideals are a much needed voice in this election cycle.
Yet as the Clinton camp begins to speculate about ways in which they can attract Sanders voters, the bigger question might be about how Sanders supporters are coping with the increasing likelihood that he may not win the nomination. On the day of the Ohio primary, I received a peek into the turmoil of one Sanders supporter, a good friend of mine in Ohio.
My day started with a call at 8:19 a.m. from this friend to inform me that he had voted. I have known this person for a decade, and he has never voted or engaged in the political process. He listens to the news, and stays informed on current events, but he has always found it hard to not experience that sense of helplessness that can come with politics. Everything seems too big or the corruption too vast for his solitary vote to matter in the grand scheme of things, so come Election Day he has always decided to stay at home. In 2008 and 2012, he participated in neither the primary nor general elections in Ohio, but for this primary he woke up early so that he could cast his first-ever vote, and he voted for Bernie Sanders.
He felt good about voting for the first time, and when he got off from work later in the day his plan was to pick up his girlfriend and drive her to the polls. The day before he was a guy who had never voted and now he was driving people to the polls. I spoke to him later in the day before he picked up his girlfriend, and he told me to keep him informed about any poll results. He really wanted to stay up to date and feel that his vote contributed to a Sanders victory, so when I texted him at 8:48 p.m. to let him know that Clinton had won, he was far from excited. I’d even say we went through a modified version of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Right off the bat, we skipped denial entirely and went straight to anger.
My friend has felt that politics is corrupt and that voting does not matter for a long time, so coping with the reality that the establishment candidate won in Ohio and that his vote did not lead to a Sanders victory was fairly easy for him. Sanders losing represented politics as usual in his eyes, and there was no need to deny that. A vote for Sanders was supposed to be a valuable contribution to upend what he thought was wrong with our society and politics, yet it did not materialize that day. So anger was his first emotion.
Clinton represented the political status quo to him, and her victory represented more of the same. More of the same that he had chosen to not participate in during previous election cycles. He was angry about returning to this political landscape. The idea of potentially voting for her held no appeal to him.
Next we proceeded to stage three: bargaining. This is the stage of grief where you plead with the Almighty to bring your beloved back from the dead, where you promise to be a better person so long as this person gets to live.
My friend did not want Sanders’s campaign to end. He wanted this valuable civil servant who has always stood up for what he thought was right and moral to still have the opportunity to make America a better place. Now all I had to do was convince him Sanders would still be relevant even if he does not win the nomination. Cheating political death needed to become a plausible option for Sanders.
This too will also be a task that the Clinton campaign will need to address if she wins the nomination. The easiest thing for Clinton to do if she wins the nomination would be to discard Sanders as a vanquished foe who needs to get in line, but this would also be the most disastrous. His candidacy has already forced her to pivot more to the left and frame the debate around progressive ideals. This shift has energized voters that she still struggles to connect with, and she’ll need Sanders’s support to keep them energized.
I was not nearly as upset about Clinton’s victory, and my friend wanted to know why. He knew that I had interned for Sanders back in the day and that I agree with most of his policies, so he expected a similar response from me. I was not angry because I had already mentally bargained with the gods.
I told him how my belief for the rest of the campaign if Sanders does not win the nomination was that the Clinton campaign would ensure that he stays relevant. Sanders’s voice has already proven to be powerful in the progressive movement, so embracing Sanders’s voice if she becomes the nominee could be an incredibly astute political move. Clinton fails to connect with Sanders’s voters, so if she wants those votes she’s going to need Sanders’s vocal and active support. For the most part, they have run very civil campaigns, so it should not be too difficult for them to work together in the general election. My friend wondered if I thought Sanders might be her vice president, and I said I doubted it. Sanders will just be an active campaigner for Clinton, and if she wins the presidency, Sanders will be a more influential voice by the end of the presidential process than when he started his improbable campaign.
Bargaining allowed my friend’s anger to subside, and he was able to see the bigger picture. Mentally and emotionally we had just brought Sanders back from the dead, but with a slight modification. Sanders not winning the presidency was OK, so long as he was still relevant and able to fight for what he believed in. This caveat allowed my friend to stay energized and want to engage in the political process. We never needed to address stages four and five, depression and acceptance. Anyway, we implicitly had.
By the end of our conversation, my friend was content with the reality that he may have to vote for Clinton in the general election, and all he wanted in exchange was for Sanders’s message and voice to still be relevant and making a difference.
Sanders’s supporters will not automatically flock to Clinton if he does not win the nomination, and many of them may support her because they want to vote against Trump, but to truly win the support of Sanders’s supporters she may need to bargain with them as they process their grief. Taking the high road and working with your former opponent will be the best way for Clinton to appeal to Sanders’s supporters and bring them into her more pragmatic and political world. And it may even prevent many of his supporters from falling too far into the five stages of grief.