Sanders' N.H. Supporters Mull Path Forward As Nomination Fight Nears End

Jun 15, 2016

Back in February, New Hampshire handed Sen. Bernie Sanders his first victory in pursuit of the presidency. Four months later, with Hillary Clinton poised to earn the Democratic nomination, where does that leave the more than 151,000 Granite Staters who backed her opponent?

Well, it depends.

At least a few are booking bus tickets, heading to the Democratic National Convention in July to stand with fellow “Bernie or Busters” — in protest of what they see as a rigged nomination system that's set to choose the wrong Democratic nominee.

“I'm clearly and unwaveringly supporting Bernie Sanders all the way through the general election in [November],” Laura Slitt, of Bartlett, wrote in an email. “Absolutely no moral or ethical reason not to.”

Others are turning to third-party candidates, or weighing whether to just write in “Bernie Sanders” on their ballots.

“I see the choice that people have: Hillary or Donald,” says Matt Cessna, a 30-year-old attorney from Concord. “I understand the reality of that choice, but I also believe that at some point, the general voting bloc has to stand up and say we’re tired of both parties.”

But others, including a few prominent Sanders backers who’ve been with the senator from the beginning, are more than open to backing Clinton as the nominee.

“Absolutely, without hesitation,” Andru Volinsky, who served as the senator’s campaign counsel in New Hampshire and will be a pledged delegate on his behalf at the Democratic National Convention, said when asked about the prospect of rallying around Clinton in the general.

But short of seeing his preferred candidate clinch the nomination, Volinsky’s also part of a coalition trying to keep Sanders’s “political revolution” alive, so to speak, in other ways.

“Some of us are working to be elected to state office — I am one of those people,” says Volinsky, who’s running for the executive council in District 2. “Some of us are working to make sure the platform reflects progressive ideals. Some of us are ready to start expending our energy on behalf of whoever the nominee is after the July convention.”

Seeting Sights on State Convention

Even after the primary moved on from New Hampshire, the nearly 100 people involved in the Sanders steering committee kept going: meeting monthly, phone banking or otherwise lending a hand in other primaries across the country, and strategizing over how to make sure the ideas that galvanized them during the primary could find a permanent place in New Hampshire politics.

Just this past weekend, Volinsky and others on the Sanders steering committee gathered at the SEIU Local offices in Concord. Their goal? To use Sanders’ large margin of victory as leverage for including some of his policy positions into the party platform, which will be updated at the convention this weekend.

“I think what Bernie’s campaign did is elevate issues that progressives have been working on in the state for decades,” says State Rep. Renny Cushing, a pledged Sanders delegate and steering committee member. “And in the process of raising up the issues, here in the state and nationally, that’s given credence, I think, and some momentum to accelerate the work we’ve been trying to do for a while here.”

The Sanders coalition wants to see the party take more concrete positions on a number of issues the senator championed as part of his campaign: raising the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, security for pension programs, universal health care, protecting the environment against fracking, decriminalizing marijuana and abolishing the death penalty, to name a few. Cushing says he’s tried to get the party to adopt those last two positions several times in the past, to no avail.

“And that’s going to change next Saturday,” he says.

Wayne Burton, another state representative from Durham who’s on the Sanders steering committee, says adopting more of these positions would go a long way to build confidence in the state party among Sanders supporters.

“I think the New Hampshire Democratic Party would be wise to have Bernie Sanders embedded well in their platform to show those voters that they heard what they said,” Burton says. “The platforms tend to not get noticed, but it’s the only thing we’ve got.”

As it stands, the Sanders supporters are on track to see at least some success enacting their proposed changes. The draft party platform set to be approved at the party convention this weekend includes several of their proposals — including the ones backed by Cushing, opposing the death penalty and supporting marijuana decriminalization.

Aside from trying to influence the party’s policy positions, the Sanders supporters are also pushing for changes in the way the party handles its nominating process. In New Hampshire and across the country, Sanders supporters have repeatedly decried the use of “superdelegates” — usually party leaders or other elected officials, who are free to back any candidate regardless of the outcome in their state’s primary — as a factor in the nomination.

Kurt Ehrenberg, who served as the Sanders campaign’s political director here in New Hampshire, says supporters have repeatedly asked the state party’s eight “superdelegates” to split their votes based on the results of the primary: five for Sanders, three for Clinton.

Right now, all but two have committed to Clinton. A few weeks ago, State Sen. Martha Fuller Clark became the first one to publicly back Sanders. The remaining superdelegate, State Party Chairman Ray Buckley, is barred from endorsing a candidate because of his role as a DNC vice chair.

Trump: “The Great Unifier?”

Looking beyond this weekend’s convention, the New Hampshire Democratic Party — and the Clinton campaign, which already has a small general election team on the ground here — are hoping to bridge the divide with skeptical Sanders supporters leading up to November.

On Tuesday, the state party announced plans to host a series of “New Hampshire Together” house parties in 17 towns across the state. They’re billed as a way for the party to “lay out what’s at stake” in this election, but they’re also designed to bring together the Clinton and Sanders camps.

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, is careful not to appear too eager to pressure Sanders supporters into jumping on board before they’re ready.

“The first thing we wanted to do, and will continue to do, is respect that they need some time to work through where they are in their race. They did an extraordinary job. They did a special job here in New Hampshire, and they should be commended for it,” says Mike Vlacich, state director for the Clinton campaign in New Hampshire. “Our message to them will be that we want to work closely with them to defeat Donald Trump. We want to, quite frankly, embrace a lot of what they did on the ground here and build off of it.”

Vlacich says local Clinton supporters are being encouraged to approach their friends who might’ve been with Sanders — “in a very thoughtful, patient, respectful way” — to let them know they’re welcome in the Clinton campaign. More formal outreach, in the form of small-group organizing events or phone calls or door-knocking, is also planned for the months ahead.

“Donald Trump is a great unifying force for our party,” Vlacich says. “And, quite frankly, we will be reaching out to Republicans and independents — because we believe they want to put country above party first, as well.”

At least a few Sanders backers echoed this idea that Trump’s candidacy could be one of the most powerful tools for promoting party unity in the general election.

“Donald Trump is a great unifier,” says Cushing, one of the Sanders delegates. “There’s nobody that embraces the ideals of Bernie Sanders that could even think about Donald Trump having his finger on the button and being in charge of this country.”

Matt Cessna, one those Sanders supporters weighing a third-party candidate or a write-in vote, says there’s “zero chance” he would support Donald Trump — and he thinks the future of the Supreme Court would be in better hands under Clinton.

Still, he remains hesitant. And, at this point, he says what he really wants from the Clinton campaign are more specific assurances from that they’re willing to take on some of the causes that Sanders championed during his candidacy.

“It’s the candidate’s job to earn somebody’s vote, it’s not somebody else’s job to vote for that person because they’re afraid of Donald Trump,” Cessna says. “I think Hillary supporters, Hillary Clinton herself, the sooner they can come around to the idea that you can’t just stand around and say, ‘Hey, you need to come vote with me because that guy’s scary,’ and instead you say, ‘We need to earn your vote, what is it going to take?’ That’s the best way for Hillary to win this election.”