Sen. Bernard Sanders’ call for a political revolution has resonated with a growing segment of Democratic voters who are committed to his message — but who, party leaders fear, will walk if he’s not the eventual presidential nominee.
Some of those voters tell pollsters they doubt they could support Hillary Clinton, Mr. Sanders’ chief competition for the party’s nod, saying she’s part of the very establishment the maverick Vermont senator is fighting against. Other Democrats say Mrs. Clinton would only earn their grudging support, leaving the party fearful of a catastrophic split.
“I think you have two distinct camps,” said John Colombo, the Democratic Party chairman in Franklin County, Iowa. “The newcomers, or the people who caucus infrequently, and then the party loyal folks, who are always at the central meetings, and there are a lot of Clinton supporters in there. The new people who are getting motivated seem to be Bernie supporters. They seem to be jazzed about the process, and really want to show up and get involved.
“What worries me is we’re drawing these new people into the party as a result of Bernie, and we want to keep them engaged,” Mr. Colombo said. “If they feel like the party’s done them wrong, or if Bernie loses and they feel the party’s done him wrong, then they won’t get on board with Hillary.”
Many of those Sanders voters are already primed by what they see as slights by the Democratic establishment, including a limited number of debates and a nasty dispute over access to party voter files.
And they question whether Mrs. Clinton can carry the message of Mr. Sanders, who has cast his campaign as a call for voters to overturn the political order and push back against business and political elites he says are stiffing the vast majority of Americans.
“Nothing real will get [done] unless we have a political revolution where millions of people finally stand up,” Mr. Sanders said at the fourth Democratic presidential debate held in South Carolina on Sunday.
Jamie Miller, a computer science engineer in Saint Jacob, Illinois, saw Mr. Sanders’ Sunday night performance as a rallying cry, and plans to support the senator in his efforts to bring forth a revolution and bring down the establishment — which includes Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
“People like me support Bernie; corporations like Exxon support Mrs. Clinton,” Mr. Miller said after the debate. “Everything Bernie says is right in line with my views. I like his take on big business and getting money out of politics to get the middle class back on track.”
Mr. Miller, who says he’s an independent, opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that he says benefits only the 1 percent and, because of which, “guys like me are going to take it in the shorts.” He didn’t vote in the last presidential cycle but did support Mr. Obama in 2008. And if Mr. Sanders loses the Democratic nomination, he vows not to vote for Mrs. Clinton, either abstaining again or considering whoever the Republican nominee is.
Mr. Miller’s the type of voter the Democratic establishment fears and the type of voter Mr. Sanders is attracting in droves.
“I think Bernie Sanders’ economic inequality message is resonating not just with traditional Democratic voters, but with younger voters and with people who are not regularly active in the Democratic Party, independents and others,” said David Allen, a Democratic Party leader in Barnstead, New Hampshire.
The most recent CBS/New York Times poll found less than half of Democratic primary voters nationwide say they would enthusiastically support Mrs. Clinton if she were their nominee. Fourteen percent would not support her in a general election, 27 percent would support her with “some reservations,” and 11 percent said they would “only back her because she is the nominee.”
Bill Packer, a retired veteran from Wyoming, Michigan, is among that 14 percent who would refuse to vote for Mrs. Clinton.
“I support Bernie, it’s a no-brainer,” Mr. Packer explained. “He has been consistent over his entire political career [for] what he stands for, and that’s exactly the same items I have stood for in my own life. It’s an absolute right, not a privilege, to have health care. And to get money out of politics. Money is really the cause of all of our dilemmas right now. If you look at Wall Street and how the 1 percent gains and everybody else loses, that’s a wrong system. Our capitalist system is broken.”
Mr. Packer says Mrs. Clinton is “bought and paid for,” and would never vote for her unless Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren were her running mate. Even then, he would have to “sleep on it.” Otherwise, if Mrs. Clinton were to win the Democratic nomination, Mr. Packer would sit out.
He voted for Republican John McCain in 2008 and describes himself as an independent. He said a Sanders-Warren ticket would be his dream.
Mr. Sanders is looking to capitalize on the issue of voter turnout and enthusiasm, saying he can transition that momentum to the general election, especially as his polling numbers tighten with Mrs. Clinton in the early-nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
“I think it’s pretty clear that a low-energy, low-turnout election in November would be disastrous for Democrats. But by energizing and engaging young people, which I think everyone has seen [Sanders do] across the country, and voters that do not often participate in elections, we can create the type of wave that will create big gains for Democrats in the Congress and at the state level while continuing us having a Democrat in the White House,” said Jeff Weaver, Mr. Sanders’ campaign manager, on a call to reporters this month.
The Democratic National Committee is already seeing the effects of Sanders supporters’ discontent.
Several progressive networks have called for the ouster of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who endorsed Mrs. Clinton in the 2008 primary, and who last month canceled Mr. Sanders’ access to the party’s voter data files before recanting a day later.
“The head of one of the two big political parties in the United States is trying to manipulate the presidential election process by limiting direct debate and tilting the national party apparatus in favor of one candidate. This is unacceptable,” RootsAction.org co-founder Norman Solomon said in a Jan. 5 statement.
Jason Frerichs, a Sanders supporter and Montgomery County, Iowa, Democratic chairman, agrees.
“Debbie Wasserman Schultz was co-chair of Hillary’s campaign in 2008. There’s no doubt she’s putting her fingers on the scale, limiting the number of sanctioned debates,” Mr. Frerichs said. “We live in an open country where there should be multiple debates, not limited or sanctioned by the establishment class. I would love to see Bernie debate against Rand Paul. That would be fascinating.”
Although Mr. Frerichs supports Mr. Sanders, he said he would vote for Mrs. Clinton, but he wouldn’t campaign or donate any money to her presidential efforts.
Still, some Sanders supporters have drifted to Mrs. Clinton as Mr. Sanders has failed to expand his platform beyond economic inequality and other domestic issues to encompass foreign policy, like how to deal with the Islamic State or Iran.
“I started out as a supporter of Bernie Sanders and still think he is extremely authentic and like his progressive ideals, however, we’re in an era where international factors are extremely important, and Hillary Clinton has the background and experience to conduct diplomatic operations,” said Suzanne Beaumont from Peru, New York. “We live in too scary a world, and need somebody who can talk knowledgeably on these issues. Economic inequality is a huge [issue] here at home, but it’s not enough. He’s an honest guy, and as much as I like him and trust him more, his expertise is just not broad enough.”
Carolyn Lamond from Kissimmee, Florida, also places more trust in Mr. Sanders and plans on voting for him in the primary, but she would vote for Mrs. Clinton in the general election if she won the nomination.
“I’ve been a Democrat all my life, and will be until the day I die,” Ms. Lamond said. “My philosophy is any Democrat is better than a Republican in the White House, even if it is Hillary Clinton and not Bernie Sanders..”