Erik Roper, a 40-year-old labor attorney from Sacramento, is one of those Facebook friends who’s unmistakably and unabashedly a Bernie Bro. Throughout the primary season, he could be reliably expected to scour the web for “Hillary is awful!”- and “Bernie can win!”-themed articles, and post them with abandon. Then came April, and May, and the politics in Roper’s feed slowed to a trickle, as reality set in. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is almost certainly not going to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Roper isn’t happy about his remaining choices. Especially not Hillary Clinton.
“She’s fundamentally flawed,” Roper tells Newsweek. “When she changes positions, it’s not because her principles have evolved. It’s based purely on polling, what she thinks is going to win the vote. She strikes me as the prototypical politician who will say and do anything whatsoever to get elected. There’s no trust in anything she says. She stands for nothing, other than power.”
Roper’s vote might be a little hard to come by for the presumptive Democratic nominee. Similar Sanders’ supporters across the country are seething after a crushing nominating contest that many believe was stolen from them by the Democratic Party machine. Clinton needs at least some of these supporters in her corner if she’s to defeat Donald Trump in November.
How to win them over? Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich posed the question in one of his insta-viral Facebook posts last week, asking Sanders supporters what it would take for Clinton to get their votes: the right veep nominee? A pledge to fire Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and reform the primary voting process? A commitment to campaign finance reform, a Treasury secretary appointee without ties to Wall Street, a “big idea” for wage inequality?
None of the above, really. Clinton is better off focusing on swing voters, even at peeling away right-leaning conservatives who can’t stomach the idea of voting for Trump.
Bernie Bros can smell pandering. Prevarication politics is one of the things Sanders’ supporters hate the most about Clinton, so any move she makes to court them won’t be trusted.
“This is a voter that’s already deeply suspicious of Hillary Clinton’s sincerity and loyalty to their cause,” University of California, Berkeley, political science professor Sean Gailmard tells Newsweek. “If she were to pivot on some policy issue to tell them what they want to hear, they wouldn’t trust her anyway.”
A better approach is to try to convince bitter Bernie voters that the process did work fairly, that despite how they might feel about superdelegates as Clinton cronies, she won more pledged delegates, more states and more overall votes than Sanders did, too. “That will resonate a lot with Sanders supporters,” Gailmard says.
Most of Sanders supporters will vote for her anyway. They may be angry, and they may be angry specifically at the candidate seeking their votes, but at the end of the day, most of Sanders’ camp is pragmatic enough to decide that beating back a Trump presidency is more important than their primary season bruises.
“A lot of that bluster is in the moment,” University of California political science professor Lynn Vavreck tells Newsweek . There were plenty of Clinton supporters angered by her loss in 2008, too, Vavreck says. Most of them voted for Barack Obama that November. “I suspect that’s going to happen with these Bernie voters no matter what she does. All this handwringing about what she can do is probably irrelevant.”
It’s more effective to build a big tent. Catering to the activist wing of your party is an effective strategy in a primary election, riling up enough of a certain kind of voters (Trump’s coalition of wingnuts, for example) to win the nomination. In the general, though, Clinton’s best approach is to construct a bandwagon and convince everyone to climb aboard.
“These things people want her to do in reaching out to Bernie supporters, that stuff is important, but not for the reasons people think it’s important,” Vavreck says. “The overtures will have the effect of bringing people on board, but to help create a sense of inevitability and momentum.”
Now’s the time to cast herself as the uniter foil to Trump’s “build a wall” rhetoric and to build enthusiasm about electing the nation’s first woman president.
“There are still a lot of uninformed voters in the middle,” Dan DiSalvo, political science professor at City University of New York, tells Newsweek . “I think her energy will probably be spent trying to turn out Latino voters and white voters. Moving toward the general, she’ll think about demographic groups in swing states. In Florida, making inroads with young Cubans. Making sure Puerto Ricans turn out in Orlando. White, working-class voters in the great lake states.”
She can win conservative votes, too. Clinton is in something of a tight spot, in that if she focuses too hard on winning progressive votes she may alienate centrists and conservatives.
“She simultaneously needs to appeal to Bernie Sanders’ supporters who need her to talk a lot of socialist claptrap with, which will not further endear her to people like me,” Mac Stipanovich, a Republican lobbyist in Florida, tells Newsweek . “She doesn’t want to be so Bernie Sanders that she drives people with less resolve than me back to voting for Donald Trump. So she has an interesting task, and has to find some way to work out a middle ground.”
One of Clinton’s biggest opportunities is in foreign policy, Stipanovich says. Trump is already on the outs with mainstream conservatives such as Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, “who believe in international engagement, a muscular foreign policy,” he says. “While her record is not blameless in that regard, it’s a field in which she can compete, and speak to us. When she gets to guns and transgender rights, the less she’s going to light up the moderate-to-conservative scorecard.”
All of which is to say Bernie Bros like Roper will matter increasingly less, in the coming weeks. There’s nothing Clinton can do to earn his support, Roper insists. He’d even stomach a Trump presidency, “which sucks. Which totally, totally sucks. But I tend to take the long view. As distasteful as it was to see George W. Bush be our president, the pendulum swung back and gave us Barack Obama, who in my mind has been one of the greatest presidents of the last 100 years,” Roper says. “That was a major net positive. I trust that if Trump gets elected, something similar will happen. On principal, I cannot vote for Hillary. I won’t be part of a system where we hold our noses and vote for the lesser of two evils.”
He’ll write in Sanders, Roper says, or abstain altogether. Clinton is hoping voters like him are in the minority, especially in swing states.