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The Sanders supporters you haven't heard about

Understanding others

In California, Sanders's supporters range in age from children to retirees. But his older supporters have one crucial difference from Millennials: They say they will vote for Hillary Clinton if she becomes the nominee.

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    Supporters of all ages hold up signs and cheer at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., Tuesday. About 8,000 people turned out to see the Vermont senator, with another 13,000 reportedly at an overflow area outside the main stadium.
    Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
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Like many of the people who filled the stands at the StubHub Center Tuesday, Mary Class brings up honesty and authenticity when she talks about why she supports Bernie Sanders.

“He’s so true to his message. He doesn’t change [his position], no matter what,” says Ms. Class as she waits in a snaking line into the venue. “He’s not a billionaire or a millionaire. He really caused a mind change – that anyone can run for president.”

Unlike many of the 8,000 people in the stands – and the reported 13,000 more packed into an overflow area – the retired schoolteacher remembers supporting John Kennedy and protesting the Vietnam War.

While much has been made of the fervor of the Vermont senator’s Millennial supporters, people well beyond college age have been turning out to hear his message of free tuition and universal health care. They range from Midwestern blue-collar workers, who see upheaval of the status quo as the best opportunity for their children to maintain their footing in the middle class, to baby boomers, who came of age during the last great protest movement of the 1960s and see Senator Sanders as someone who never sold out.

Unlike their younger cohort, who share their embrace of liberal ideals and their desire for change, these voters say they have a pragmatic streak. There will be no Green Party protest vote for Class. Preventing a Donald Trump presidency, these voters say, is a higher priority than registering their disappointment at the ballot box.

“If Hillary gets the nomination, I’m going to drag myself to vote for her,” Class says. “I don’t like how slick she is, but I hope people won’t protest and not vote.”

'Bernie or bust'?

That acceptance of a possible need to compromise – as Hillary Clinton pulls within 100 delegates of the number she needs to secure the nomination – stands in stark contrast to the views held by Sanders's staunchest – and mostly younger – followers. To them, putting anyone but the senator in the White House equals betrayal.

That fervor has occasionally erupted in violence, as at the Nevada convention over the weekend, when, according to journalists present, Senator Sanders’s supporters rushed the stage, threw chairs and shouted obscenities, believing they had been treated unfairly. The Nevada Democratic chairwoman has said she’s received death threats from Sanders supporters. Sanders has denied his supporters were inciting violence and echoed charges of unfair treatment.

Mary Class, a retired schoolteacher from Laguna Hills, Calif., holds up a handmade sign showing her support for Bernie Sanders at a rally for the Democratic presidential candidate at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., on Tuesday. Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor

At the rally in Carson, “Bernie or bust” signs appear amid the placards proclaiming “Students for Bernie,” “LGBT for Bernie,” and “Bernie is not for sale.”

“I’ll bring in a black marker [to the general elections] and write down his name,” if he loses the nomination, says Seyla Uy, a military veteran who fought in Kosovo and did two tours in Iraq.

“I’m not voting for Hillary,” he continues. “She voted for a war I lost soldiers in.”

The difference is apparent even within families. At 14, Monica Stauring is too young to vote, but she is convinced that Sanders is the future. “He’s our only hope,” she says.

Her father, Javier, agrees – to a point.

“My daughter really encapsulates it with the word, ‘hope,’ ” Mr. Stauring says. “For those of us who have been around long enough to see how the game of politics is played, it’s invigorating to listen to a leader speaking to the people because that is what he believes in.”

But should Sanders lose the nomination – and Stauring acknowledges it could happen – “I would have to go with Hillary,” he says. “The other option is unthinkable.”

'I continue to believe he can win'

Sanders appears to have tapped into a contingent of older voters who say the senator is the leader they hadn’t known they wanted. And they say they are heartened by how he's pushing the Democratic Party to the left.

“I think there is this genuine excitement about Sanders among his supporters that he is riding a wave up,” says Ange-Marie Hancock, an associate professor of political science and gender studies at the University of Southern California. “He’s changed the narrative so far.”

Cherri Dodd, a lifelong Republican in her 40s from eastern Texas who now works as a freelance writer in California, says she has always participated in politics and encouraged her children to do the same.

“When [my kids] told me about Bernie Sanders, I said, ‘This is the man I’ve been looking for all my life,’ ” she says. His honesty, “normalcy,” and policies moved her to switch parties and volunteer for his campaign. The afternoon of the rally, she walks up and down the line of supporters, recruiting them to help with canvassing and manning the phone banks.

“I continue to believe he can win,” she says.

Seung Min Lim, on the other hand, never had an interest in politics. Having immigrated to the United States from Korea in 1971, he says this is the first time in more than four decades that he’s supported a presidential candidate. When Sanders kicked off his California campaign in Koreatown in March, Mr. Lim, who is in his 70s, was among those at the front of the packed Wiltern Theatre.

“His philosophy is same as mine,” he says. “Other politicians, they change their words. [When Sanders] say something, he never changes. He is true to himself.”

For Edward Ferry, the surprise was less in his personal support for Sanders than in the zeal with which so many others have welcomed his ideas.

“I love, love, love that man, but it really is the ideology [for me],” says Mr. Ferry, a private chef in his 50s and a Los Angeles native. A lifelong socialist, he had long conceded that his beliefs were hardly mainstream: “It was four, five, six of us meeting in a dusty room,” he says.

Hearing Sanders bring democratic socialism to the national stage – and watching his fellow Americans embrace the ideas behind it – has been more than affirming.

“It’s exhilarating,” he says.

A symbolic blow

When news of Sanders’s sweeping victory at the Oregon primaries reached the rally Tuesday night, the senator took it as a sign to forge ahead – despite conceding, less than a month before, that Clinton has a near-decisive hold on the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination.

“We have the possibility of going to [the Democratic National Convention in] Philadelphia with a majority of the pledged delegates,” Sanders said, as the crowd erupted into raucous cheering. “Some people say that we’ve got a steep hill to climb to do that. And you know what? That is absolutely true. But you know what? Together we have been climbing that steep hill from Day 1 in this campaign.”

The Sanders camp continues to focus on the need to persuade superdelegates to switch camps, arguing that they endorsed Clinton too early in the campaign. A win in California on June 7 would be a forceful argument.

“Symbolically it would really be a blow for the Clinton campaign if Sanders won California,” says Professor Hancock at USC. “Even if she becomes the nominee by the number of delegates, symbolically, it would absolutely not look good going into the convention. On the off-chance that [Clinton] is defeated … she would be in a much more weakened state in terms of being able to control the platform.”

Defeat, however, was not in the minds of Sanders supporters on Tuesday. His declaration to march onward following the Oregon victory was received as nothing less than a battle cry.

“He’s changed the dialogue,” says Class, the retired teacher. “I’ve not given up on him yet.”

 
 
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