In interviews, some of Bernie Sanders’s primary voters saw Joe Biden as a weaker candidate than Hillary Clinton. Others didn’t think he could win. Nearly all were unenthusiastic.

Credit…via Mary Shippee

Trip Gabriel

Mary Shippee voted for Senator Bernie Sanders in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary this month, well after it was clear he had no chance to become the party’s presidential nominee.

Now that Mr. Sanders has dropped out and endorsed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Ms. Shippee is torn over whether to once again cast a vote for a moderate Democrat in November, after grudgingly supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016 and President Barack Obama in 2012.

“What it feels like is the Democratic Party relies on guilting progressives into voting for them, and they don’t want to have any meaningful changes,” said Ms. Shippee, 31, a nursing student in Milwaukee. “For the third election in a row, to have a candidate you’re not excited about makes me a little more interested in voting third party.”

Despite Mr. Sanders’s call to unite behind Mr. Biden to defeat President Trump — whom the Vermont senator described as “the most dangerous president” of modern times — and despite Mr. Obama’s assurance that the party had moved left since he left office, the youthful and impassioned army of Sanders supporters is far from ready to embrace a nominee so unlike the one they pinned their dreams on.

In interviews with two dozen Sanders primary voters across the country this week, there was a nearly universal lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Some called him a less formidable candidate than Hillary Clinton was in 2016. Many were skeptical of his ability to beat Mr. Trump. Others were quick to critique Mr. Biden’s sometimes incoherent speech.

Taken together, the voters’ doubts raised questions about how many would show up for Mr. Biden in November, including their likelihood to volunteer and organize for him, an important measure of enthusiasm. In a poll last month, four out of five Sanders supporters said they would vote for Mr. Biden, with 15 percent saying they would cross over to Mr. Trump, about the same share that did so in 2016.

Te’wuan Thorne, 24, said it was “up in the air” whether he would vote. A Sanders supporter who recently moved to New York City from Pennsylvania, where he is registered to vote, he said, “If I happen to be at my polling place, I would vote for Biden, but I’m not very enthusiastic about him whatsoever.”

Some Sanders primary voters said they would back a third-party candidate, a few said they would vote for Mr. Trump, and some were wavering about voting at all. Daniel Ray, 27, of Lancaster, Penn., planned to write in Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii who ended her long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination last month.

In Facebook groups for Sanders supporters and on Twitter, cynicism persisted about the olive branches on policy that Mr. Biden has offered to progressives and, at the extreme, some accused Mr. Sanders of selling out his leftist movement.

It is clear, if it wasn’t already, that the Sanders base is far different from the supporters of moderate candidates in the primaries, who moved on quickly from their first choices to coalesce around Mr. Biden early last month. For Mr. Sanders, bringing his people on board will not be easy, even though he endorsed Mr. Biden with seeming affection and months earlier than he did Mrs. Clinton in 2016.

Nathaniel Kesselring of Tucson voted for Mr. Sanders in the Arizona primary but said he would not vote for Mr. Biden because progressives should not compromise on issues like “Medicare for all” and free public college tuition.

“If we don’t declare as a movement that this isn’t good enough,” Mr. Kesselring said, referring to Mr. Biden’s moderate policies, “then the Democratic Party has every right to ignore us. I hate the idea of Donald Trump being president for another term, but if that’s what we need to do to make these people take us seriously, that’s what needs to be done.”

“I hate it,” repeated Mr. Kesselring, 45, the vice president of a buyer’s club for diabetes products. “I hate it. But I’m not moving.”

Certainly, as polling shows, the majority of Sanders voters plan to support Mr. Biden. Most of those interviewed who intend to do so called it a hold-your-nose election.

“I will vote for him; Biden is better than Trump, sure,” said Stephen Phillips, 33, who lives in Lakeland, Fla., and has been furloughed from his job in talent recruitment because of the coronavirus outbreak. But he cringed watching Mr. Sanders’s live-streamed endorsement of Mr. Biden on Monday, when the senator spoke extemporaneously while the former vice president seemed to be reading off cue cards. “This guy is going to be running against Donald Trump, who off the cuff can destroy anybody with words.”

Maria Aviles-Hernandez, 24, a Spanish teacher near Rocky Mount, N.C., didn’t vote in 2016 but plans to support Mr. Biden, although Mr. Sanders was her first choice. “I will vote this year, I will make sure of that,” she said. “I didn’t expect Trump to win the first time. The world just surprised me. I don’t want that to happen again.”

A challenge for Mr. Biden in the fall is that even if he has the grudging support of Sanders voters, many may not go out of their way to vote, either by applying for absentee ballots or by traveling home if they are students.

“For a college student, the barriers to get to the voting place are very real,” said Victoria Waring, 21, whose family home is in central Pennsylvania but who attends college in Philadelphia, studying film and animation. “A lot of my friends are disillusioned with the Democratic Party, they feel there’s nothing they can do to be represented, that the establishment will pick whoever they want and it doesn’t matter what we say.”

In 2016, before she was old enough to vote, Ms. Waring organized for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. Ms. Waring said she would not volunteer this year for the Biden campaign. “How could I in good faith tell someone to vote for someone who I don’t agree with on any issue?” she asked. “I can’t. No. Absolutely not.”

One survey after the 2016 election indicated that 12 percent of Mr. Sanders’s primary voters ended up voting for Mr. Trump in the general election. Another 8 percent of Sanders supporters voted for a third-party candidate, and 3 percent did not vote. The numbers were in line with past elections when a losing candidate’s primary voters did not support the nominee. But because the 2016 race was so close, with Mr. Trump winning by less than one percentage point in three crucial Rust Belt states, the Sanders drop-off voters helped tilt the election away from Mrs. Clinton.

Some Sanders supporters, to be sure, will be voting for Mr. Biden without hesitation.

Nathalia Calderon, 34, of Milford, Mich, said that before the state’s primary on March 10, which was a kind of last stand for Mr. Sanders, she had planned to vote for the Vermont senator. But she changed her mind before the election and voted for Mr. Biden instead.

“I believed in all the things Bernie wanted to do, but then I was doing a little more research and realized what he wanted to do wasn’t realistic,’’ she said. “When someone promises you the moon, most likely it isn’t going to happen.” She voted for Mr. Biden in the primary and looks forward to doing so again in November.

But many younger voters, who overwhelmingly backed Mr. Sanders in this year’s primary race, said Mr. Biden seemed like just another politician with wishy-washy positions on climate change and health care. What they craved, they said, was the type of fundamental change that Mr. Sanders has espoused for decades.

“Joe Biden, he seems fake to me,” said Jacob Davids, 21, a college student in Milwaukee. “I don’t know his policies, and if you haven’t put enough effort into P.R. and media to make viewers like me know where you stand, I’m not going to vote for you.”

Kevin Ridler, 55, voted for Mr. Sanders in this year’s Democratic primary and cast a ballot for Mr. Trump in the 2016 general election. Mr. Ridler lives in rural western Iowa and is the president of a railway maintenance workers’ local in the Midwest. He said he had believed Mr. Trump’s promises that he would be a friend of American workers. Immediately after the election, Mr. Ridler said, his union’s railroad employer refused to renegotiate a contract, citing a “new political climate,” and workers were forced to take a pay cut.

Mr. Ridler now calls his vote for Mr. Trump “a mistake” that he will not repeat.

He supported Mr. Sanders in Iowa’s caucuses. But he has a powerful dislike of Mr. Biden, whom he called dishonest, throwing in a few epithets. “I think he’s got dementia,” he said.

“Honestly, I hate to not vote at all,” he said, speaking from a railway bridge under construction outside Jefferson City, Mo. “I know that’s not the right thing to do, but that’s kind of what’s going to happen here.”

Robert Grullon, 29, a carpenter at a door factory near Melbourne, Fla., liked Mr. Sanders’s promises to raise the minimum wage and provide health care for all. “We love Bernie,” he said. “Bernie’s our guy.”

He complained that Hispanic voters and black voters — he is third-generation Dominican-American — tend to support Democrats but don’t get much back. “When are they going to have something for blacks and Hispanics, just for us?” he said. Mr. Biden struck him as just another politician in a blue suit.

“To tell you the truth, Trump might get my vote,” he said. “Donald Trump is a person who’s always been known in our community — I like hip-hop — we idolized him because he was a billionaire, he has been in rap videos, he has friends who are African-American.”

In eastern Iowa on Tuesday, Kelly Manning had just finished her route as a letter carrier for the Postal Service, which has lost millions in revenue during the pandemic even as Mr. Trump tries to block relief funding for the agency. Ms. Manning, 55, caucused for Mr. Sanders in Burlington, on the Mississippi River. She heard Mr. Biden speak when he came through Iowa, though she said he had made her nearly doze off.

“I’ll hold my nose and vote for Biden,” she said.

Her 31-year-old son, Mason Blow, is another matter. A staunch Sanders supporter, he voted for a third-party candidate in 2016. Ms. Manning said she and her sister were “working on him” to vote for Mr. Biden, to prevent a second Trump term.

“He said he won’t vote for Biden, he’s going to write in Bernie this time,” Ms. Manning said. “The younger people, they’re not used to having their dream crushed as we are.”

Updated April 19, 2020



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