The left is lukewarm on Biden. Will they turn out for him anyway?

Why We Wrote This

While many Sanders supporters agree on the need to oust Trump, they’re still looking for concessions from the former vice president before they get on board. Some say they’re just tired of being taken for granted.

John Locher/AP
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (left) and former Vice President Joe Biden gesture during a Democratic presidential primary debate Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas. Senator Sanders has endorsed Mr. Biden and urged his supporters to do everything they can to help elect him in the fall.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

As it prepares for a pugilistic general election contest with President Donald Trump, the Democratic Party – for once – doesn’t seem in disarray. Former Vice President Joe Biden came from behind to wrap up the nomination relatively easily, with his former competitors quickly endorsing him – including his last rival standing, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Among dozens of Sanders supporters interviewed by the Monitor, only a handful say they absolutely will not vote for Mr. Biden in November. 

But tensions between the progressive wing and the rest of the party haven’t dissipated, either.

Many on the left were outraged when New York decided this week to cancel its presidential primary in June, likely denying Mr. Sanders delegates that could have given him more clout at the convention. And some Sanders supporters have been advancing charges that Mr. Biden sexually assaulted a former staffer in the mid-’90s. (Mr. Biden’s campaign has denied the allegation.)    

Above all, many say there are concessions Mr. Biden still must make to help unite the party – most prominently, his selection of a running mate.

“Many Bernie supporters are eagerly awaiting his VP candidate announcement,” says Kittee Hayes, a hairstylist from Eugene, Oregon. “Who that woman is will determine a huge percentage of who will vote for him.”

Ray Barkoski has something particular he wants from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden: respect.

Sure, it would be good if Mr. Biden picks a running mate who reflects progressive values, says Mr. Barkoski, a dog rescue coordinator for Connecticut who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primary race. He hopes the Biden platform will incorporate some of Mr. Sanders’ policy goals, such as universal health care and reining in Wall Street.

But if the Biden campaign truly wants to win over Mr. Sanders’ army of dedicated supporters and unite the Democrats, the candidate himself needs to signal that he values them and understands why they became Sanders activists in the first place, Mr. Barkoski says.

“It’s not Trumpers who are saying ‘Oh you Bernie people are all losers.’ That’s all coming from our own party,” says Mr. Barkoski, who has cast his ballot for Democratic presidential nominees since he became old enough to vote in 1972. “This party has no interest in me or what I stand for, unless it’s courting my vote.”

As it readies for what promises to be a pugilistic general election contest with President Donald Trump, the Democratic Party – for once – doesn’t seem to be in disarray. Former Vice President Biden came from behind to wrap up the nomination relatively easily, with his former competitors quickly endorsing him – including his last rival standing, Senator Sanders.

Many of the Vermont lawmaker’s loyal supporters, sometimes dubbed “Bernie Bros,” may eventually follow. A USA Today/Suffolk poll from last week found that 77 percent of Sanders supporters say they will back Mr. Biden, and among dozens recently interviewed by the Monitor, only a handful said they won’t.

But tensions between the progressive wing and the rest of the party haven’t dissipated, either. Many on the left were outraged when New York decided this week to cancel its presidential primary in June, likely denying Mr. Sanders delegates that could have given him more clout at the party convention. And some Sanders supporters have been advancing charges that Mr. Biden sexually assaulted a former staffer, Tara Reade, in the mid-’90s. (Mr. Biden’s campaign has denied the allegation.)    

Many say there are policy and personnel concessions that Mr. Biden still must make to unite the party in coming months – most prominently, his selection of a running mate.

“Biden needs to unite the left by not being in the center,” says Kittee Hayes, a hairstylist from Eugene, Oregon. “That is the bottom line.” 

Concessions to the left

To be sure, the request for respect cuts both ways.

Senator Sanders’ grassroots army is notoriously active – and biting – on social media. A previous Monitor analysis of Sanders supporters on Twitter, for example, found their negative replies to other candidates’ tweets far outnumbered those of any other Democrats’ supporters.

And Mr. Biden has already moved left on key issues. Last year he unveiled a plan to reduce U.S. net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, at a cost of $1.7 trillion in federal investments. He has proposed a health care budget that, over 10 years, is more than five times larger than the one proposed by Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential campaign. In early March Mr. Biden endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan, which he had previously opposed.

The day after Mr. Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, Mr. Biden announced two more policy shifts: a proposal to lower the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60, and a pledge to forgive federal student loan debt for graduates of public universities or historically black colleges making less than $125,000.

“Senator Sanders and his supporters can take pride in their work in laying the groundwork for these ideas,” wrote Mr. Biden in a blog post, “and I’m proud to adopt them as part of my campaign.”

Still, some of Senator Sanders’ most vocal supporters, such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, say Mr. Biden has further to go.

Mr. Biden has already committed to selecting a woman as his vice president, and Sanders supporters hope his choice will be a nod to the left. They throw out a bunch of names, but the most common suggestion is Senator Warren.

“Many Bernie supporters are eagerly awaiting his VP candidate announcement,” says Ms. Hayes. “Who that woman is will determine a huge percentage of who will vote for him.”

A key question is how much political power Senator Sanders and his followers actually possess. After all, their candidate did lose, and with a smaller share of the vote than in 2016.

“After running for president twice and losing worse the second time, maybe [Mr. Sanders] is not the wave of the future at all for the party,” says Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College. 

But if Mr. Biden wants to attract young voters, he needs to recognize what drew many of them to Senator Sanders, says Carmel Pryor, communications director for the Alliance for Youth Action, one of several activist groups that recently penned a letter to the former vice president outlining how he might win their support.

It’s more than just policies, she says – it’s a willingness to listen. “We shouldn’t be treated as children who are just complaining,” says Ms. Pryor. “We are trying to find solutions and looking for someone to take us seriously.”

The country’s current struggle with COVID-19 will only hasten the party’s leftward shift, she suggests.

“COVID-19 is exposing the social ills of our nation,” such as an unstable economy and inadequate health care, says Ms. Pryor. “It’s unearthing things that progressives have been yelling from the mountaintop this entire time.”

Not 2016

Others say the left should perhaps cut Mr. Biden some slack.

This primary contest ended on a far less acrimonious note than four years ago. In 2016, Senator Sanders did not endorse Mrs. Clinton until two weeks before the party’s nominating convention; this year, he endorsed Mr. Biden just five days after dropping out. It’s clear the two septuagenarian grandfathers have a friendly relationship.

And of course, the stakes appear very different to many Democrats.

“The elephant in the room is that, if not Biden, Trump,” says John Landosky, a city employee for Little Rock, Arkansas, and a Sanders backer.

Many Sanders supporters didn’t expect Mr. Trump to win in 2016, so they felt safe not voting for Mrs. Clinton. Now, that’s not the case. 

“The majority of people I’ve talked to so far have said, ‘Yes, I will vote for Biden because the other choice is so much worse,’” says Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, a state representative from Middletown Springs, Vermont.

“I’d vote for the devil before I voted for Trump,” says Lisa Geiger, a Sanders supporter and substitute teacher from Arkansas. 

This either-or decision is clearly on the mind of Senator Sanders himself. “Do we be as active as we can in electing Joe Biden and doing everything we can to move Joe and his campaign in a more progressive direction?” he said to The Associated Press. “Or do we choose to sit it out and allow the most dangerous president in modern American history to get reelected?”

But some, like Massachusetts substitute teacher Kasey Rogers, say the movement Senator Sanders built is more important than one election.

A few years ago, Ms. Rogers’ husband got sick, lost his job, and died. She was suddenly a single mom trying – and failing – to pay all of her bills.

“When I had to go to the grocery store with food stamps and people looked at me like a criminal...” Ms. Rogers trails off, crying. “It really changed my perspective on life. I suddenly became one of those people that Bernie fights for.”

Ms. Rogers says she’ll vote for the Green Party nominee this November, just as she did in 2016, seeing Mr. Biden as little better than Mr. Trump. And she hopes the Sanders movement goes on fighting for change.

“We remind each other that Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony – they were never president,” says Ms. Rogers. “Transformational things in our country have been done by non-presidents.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.