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Sanders Voters: Will They Coalesce Behind the Presumptive Nominee?


— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Monday officially endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee.

— Following a disappointing stretch of contests, Sanders had dropped out of the presidential race last Wednesday, leaving Biden as the presumptive nominee.

— Even with a Sanders exit and subsequent endorsement, the Biden campaign has reason to be concerned about Sanders’ supporters coalescing behind Biden.

Biden tries to unify his party

“We need you in the White House. I will do all that I can to see that that happens, Joe.” With that phrase on Monday, Bernie Sanders officially threw his support behind Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Sanders’ endorsement came as the uncertainty surrounding the current coronavirus pandemic has created a need for unity within the Democratic Party in order to defeat President Donald Trump.

The livestreamed video endorsement came just five days after Sanders had suspended his campaign, which paved the way for Biden to become the presumptive nominee. Though the Sanders campaign could point to an impressive network of volunteers and a robust fundraising operation at the time, the senator cited the hard realities of delegate math. Despite his strength in earlier contests, the month of March was not kind to him; after winning just seven of the 26 contests that month, he trailed Biden by some 300 pledged delegates at the time — a number that he conceded was insurmountable.

Following Sanders’ exit and endorsement, the former vice president can count on Sanders’ much-needed support.

With Sanders out of the race, will his supporters be ready to get on board with Biden? Sanders has called for unity, citing the common need to defeat Donald Trump, “the most dangerous president in modern American history.” Endorsing the former vice president, Sanders emphasized, “We need you in the White House.” On Tuesday, he went further, admonishing his supporters who would do anything besides coalesce behind Biden: “I believe that it’s irresponsible for anybody to say, ‘Well, I disagree with Joe Biden — I disagree with Joe Biden! — and therefore I’m not going to be involved.’” In 2016, Sanders made similar appeals on behalf of Hillary Clinton and endorsed her after their primary, which Clinton consistently led but which was also more competitive than the Biden vs. Sanders head-to-head contests have been. While the vast majority of Sanders’ supporters moved to her in the general elections, 12% still voted for Trump in the fall, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study — a small fraction of the total, to be sure, but considering the narrow margins in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, perhaps that 12% was decisive.

In his own endorsement of Biden this week, former President Barack Obama also seemed to extend an olive branch to Sanders supporters, emphasizing that he believes Biden has the most progressive platform of any major party nominee ever. Tellingly, that type of language seems tailored to Sanders voters, as opposed to a general electorate.

Given Sanders’ endorsement, where will his supporters go now? The vast majority seem likely to go to Biden, just like they went to Clinton four years ago. But there will be defections, too — and perhaps enough to affect the outcome in some swing states. Different polls tell slightly different stories on this.

In a Morning Consult poll conducted March 11-15 — so right before Biden’s smashing victories on March 17 — 82% of Sanders voters responded that they would vote for Biden in the general election, while just 7% indicated that they would vote for Trump (the remaining 11% didn’t know or had no opinion).

Contrast this to 2016, when about 80% of Sanders voters voted for Clinton in the general election, 8% voted for third parties, and 12% of Sanders primary voters switched their vote to Trump in the general election, according to data from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. In that year, defections from the Sanders campaign were large enough to deliver the election to Trump, who won over 216,000 disaffected Sanders voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, according to an NBC News analysis of exit polling data.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released March 29 shows that while 80% of Sanders supporters would vote for Biden, a sizeable 15% would vote for Trump. If 12% of Sanders’ base defected to Trump in 2016 and arguably delivered him the election, 15% of Sanders’ supporters defecting in 2020 would be a serious cause for concern for Biden.

There is a precedent for this rate of defections in 2008 with Hillary Clinton primary voters who went on to back John McCain in the general election. Exit polling in November 2008 showed that 15% of voters who initially supported Clinton in the primaries defected to McCain in the general. Yet this 15% of voters didn’t stop the Democratic nominee, then-Sen. Barack Obama, from winning the general election. This may offer some comfort for the Biden campaign.

Biden obviously wants this percentage of defectors to be as low as possible, and he is going to great lengths to maintain a positive relationship with the Sanders campaign, as noted above. Nowhere was this friendly dynamic more evident than during Sen. Biden’s victory speech following the March 10 Michigan primary, when he addressed Sanders supporters saying,
“We need you, we want you, there is a place in our campaign for each of you… We share a common goal, and together, we’ll defeat Donald Trump.” Shortly after his losses on March 17, Sanders returned to his home in Burlington, VT to actively “assess” his campaign with his wife and supporters. At the time, campaign officials suggested that he intended to stay in the race in order to push the more moderate Biden’s campaign leftward. Based on some of Biden’s recent policy proposals, Sanders may have had some success doing that.

These efforts show that the Biden campaign is taking steps to avoid fallout between the eventual Democratic nominee and the runner-up, a situation that has some historical precedent. This was seen in the 1980 primary: When Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) challenged the incumbent Jimmy Carter, Kennedy didn’t concede until the convention. Even then, Kennedy’s support for Carter appeared only lukewarm: When the two were on the convention stage, instead of the full embrace the Carter campaign had hoped for, Kennedy offered a cool handshake.

Kennedy, running as a progressive insurgent, certainly divided the Democratic Party. While the intraparty fallout may not have been the sole reason for Carter’s loss in the general election, the party has been determined to avoid such friction ever since. As recently as 2016, however, history repeated itself. Sanders only reluctantly endorsed Clinton in 2016, and sentiment between the campaigns was generally hostile. Clinton revealed how negative their relationship was when in January she eviscerated Sanders by saying, among other things, “Nobody likes him.” In contrast to the Kennedy-Carter and Clinton-Sanders episodes, the Biden campaign seems to have learned from history; it’s made some overtures to the Sanders campaign, with the hopes of quelling any lingering division.

Yet if the Democratic front-runner is extending the olive branch to Sanders’ voters, then so is President Trump. Throughout the 2016 and 2020 elections, the incumbent Republican has been outspoken about his belief that the Democratic primaries are “rigged” against Sanders — a belief originating from leaked DNC emails in 2016 that some suggested indicated a bias against Sanders’ campaign. Trump has written many tweets about the Democratic Party being unfair to Sanders and has spoken about the matter at rallies as well. The president would welcome Sanders defectors, as he trails by about six points on average nationally behind Biden in the face of a pandemic and economic downturn. Fortunately for him, the ABC News/Washington Post poll indicates that perhaps he can count on as much as 15% of Sanders’ supporters (it is worth noting that the ABC/Post poll showed Biden up by just two points nationally, one of Trump’s best surveys among those conducted recently). Meanwhile, Biden, the presumptive nominee, has some work to do to ensure Sanders supporters coalesce more behind him.

Since Sanders’ exit from the race, Biden has already made some policy concessions to court the Vermont senator’s voters: supporting lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60, while pushing student loan forgiveness for certain borrowers. Even with these concessions, Sanders supporters are anxious for more progressive policies. Following Sanders’ exit, eight progressive groups joined to write an open letter proposing numerous policy changes to Biden, especially regarding climate change, gun control, and healthcare. Biden campaign officials have been in contact with a number of these groups, so perhaps more policy changes are to come. With more sweeping policy changes, perhaps Biden can hope to narrow the 15% margin of Sanders-Trump defectors — although he also has suburban moderates to court.

There are all sorts of variables for the November election, but an important one is party unity — on both sides. Biden is taking steps to make sure he has a unified party in the fall, but it remains to be seen whether he does better than Clinton in that regard.

Tommy Dannenfelser is a University of Virginia student studying Politics and Spanish, as well as a student intern for the Center for Politics and the Crystal Ball. Find him on Twitter @tommydannen.