Clinton’s Bid for Democratic Unity a Tough Sell Among Some Sanders Supporters

Careful courting of ideological, demographic, and geographic subgroups is key to swinging voters to her side.

Trump vs. Clinton: Who Do the Markets Want?

With every pledge to unify the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton is acknowledging one of her biggest challenges between now and  November: getting millions of Bernie Sanders' fans to give her their votes.

The Clinton campaign is still trying to figure out exactly what Sanders wants in exchange for rallying his supporters to her side. In recent weeks, he’s suggested that Clinton can’t expect them to just fall in line, but he hasn’t enumerated exactly what he believes would draw them in. He hasn’t said which of his policy positions is most important for her to adopt or at least shift closer toward, or what other moves she could make that would satisfy him.

With 13 nominating contests still to go, and Sanders vowing to fight on, Clinton's campaign is taking a soft-sell approach, and waiting for a clear signal of intentions from the Vermont senator. 

“I see a great role and opportunity for him and his supporters to be part of that unified party to move into not just November to win the election against Donald Trump, but to then govern based on the progressive goals that he and I share,” Clinton said in an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation program that aired Sunday.

Although Clinton now leads Trump in most national polls, the real-estate developer and TV personality's unorthodox and unpredictable campaign has defied political forecasting on his march to becoming the presumptive Republican nominee. He's also got a campaign message that includes a strain of the populism that's fueled Sanders in the Democratic race that Clinton can't afford to ignore in her quest to form a coalition of support that will allow her to prevail in the general election.

To get there, her campaign will seek to learn as much as it can about Sanders' to-date 9.3 million voters and 2.4 million donors: What percentage of that group has already decided they'll at least grudgingly vote for her if she's the nominee? How many are leaning toward staying home or contemplating crossing over to Trump? Which part of that demographic are most important to the electoral college map? And how much farther to the left can she go in terms of rhetoric and policy to get them without alienating moderates in states like Ohio or Pennsylvania?

As the Clinton campaign turns its attention to a unity effort, slicing and dicing these ideological, demographic and geographic subgroups is key to the targeting effort.

“What we know about Sanders state by state is what we know nationally because it's been amazingly consistent,” said Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison Research, which conducts exit polling for a consortium of news organizations.

Sanders' supporters consist of young, white, liberal and independent voters who are more aligned with Democrats than Republicans. They distrust Wall Street and the political establishment. They value trustworthiness and compassion over experience and electability. They include a core of perhaps 15 percent that may be unwinnable for Clinton and from where any defections to Trump may be more likely to occur. They also include voters who live in states, such as Oklahoma or Idaho, that any Democrat would have little or no chance of winning in November.

So far this year, Lenski's organization has conducted exit polls in 26 states, covering 34,866 voters in 24 primaries and two of the caucuses.

Among the findings:

  • While Clinton is the clear favorite of minority voters overall, younger black and Hispanic voters, like whites, prefer Sanders in the Democratic exit polls. Clinton is leading Sanders with blacks 77 percent to 21 percent overall, but among blacks ages 17 to 24, Sanders leads her, 57 percent to 42 percent. Clinton leads Sanders with Hispanics overall, 62 percent to 38 percent overall. But Hispanics ages 17-24 go for Sanders 75 percent to 24 percent, and Hispanics ages 25-29 prefer Sanders over Clinton, 56 percent to 44 percent.
  • About 15 percent of Sanders supporters expect to feel “scared” if Clinton wins the nomination according to the combined findings of Edison's findings in Democratic exit polls in three states, Wisconsin, New York, and Indiana, where voters were asked whether they'd be excited, optimistic, concerned or scared if either Clinton or Sanders is the nominee. If those numbers extend nationally, it is this bloc of Sanders voters that may be the most resistant to voting for Clinton. It's less clear how many of them would consider voting for a Republican alternative. Overall, the three-state findings show 48 percent of Democratic contest voters would feel optimistic about a Clinton win, while 19 percent said excited, 24 percent concerned and 8 percent scared. “There's grudging acceptance of Clinton among the Sanders voters instead of them being concerned,” Lenski said. “There's not a lot of negative. It's more like, ‘Eh, ok, we can live with it.’”
  • Asked what candidate qualities matter most, 46 percent of Sanders' backers said honest and trustworthy and 37 percent said caring about people like themselves, while 9 percent said experience and 6 percent said someone who can win in November.
  • Ideology isn't as decisive as age or race. In the Democratic exit polls, those calling themselves very liberal chose Sanders over Clinton just 50 percent to 49 percent, while Clinton bested him with somewhat liberal and moderate categorizations. “It's really age and race that drives most of this,” Lenski said.
  • Sanders backers and Trump fans don't usually have much in common. The one overlap, Lenski said, is “that they feel the system is kind of rigged against them” with concerns about global trade and Wall Street. Trump's supporter profile tends tends to be white but lesser educated, more male, angry with government.

David Fredrick, the co-founder and executive director of Grassroots for Sanders, said there are many in his coalition who would rather vote for a third-party candidate or skip the ballot than turn out for Clinton under her current platform. He said Sanders fans want to know if she emerges as the nominee “that she’s going to bat for the issues that we love Bernie so much for.”

Clinton will lose votes by “tearing us down by saying ‘pie in the sky,’ ‘unachievable dreams.’ We can’t handle the insults to where our platform is, and that’s where Hillary needs to make that change if she wants to have us keep coming,” he said.

“We need to be looking at something that’s far more liberal than what she’s doing,” Fredrick said. “Maybe not as liberal as what Bernie’s doing, but if she’s going to be moderate, moderate left. We can’t have her as moderate or moderate right.”

Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, told Bloomberg Politics podcast Masters in Politics he thought that Sanders supporters would “just sit home frankly” during the general election if Clinton moved toward the center.

Throughout the fall and winter, Clinton made efforts to draw in Sanders’ younger supporters, arguing that while, for instance, his plan for free college might seem great, it would be impossible to execute. But as the results of most primaries and caucuses show, she hasn’t had much success in convincing them, nor has she done much to directly reach out.

At times, she's also vented about Sanders backers and what she sees as their willingness to uncritically accept his critiques of her. “I feel sorry sometimes for the young people who, you know, believe this,” Clinton said last month. “They don't do their own research. And I'm glad that we now can point to reliable, independent analysis to say, ‘No, it's just not true.’”

Meanwhile, Trump has gone on the offensive to try an lure Sanders supporters. He promoted the idea that Sanders has been “treated terribly” by the Democratic Party and should run as an independent. And the day after Trump won the New York primary, he said on MSNBC that Sanders “has a message that's interesting. I'm going to be taking a lot of the things Bernie said and using them.”

A study by Tufts University's Center for Research and Information on Civic Learning and Engagement, using data collected from 20 states in the 2016 campaign, concluded that almost 2 million young people voted for Sanders, about three times as many as any other candidate from either party. Trump received 747,000 votes from young people, the second-largest number, and Clinton got 727,000.

The good news for Clinton is that voters under 35 would overwhelmingly back her over Trump in a general-election match-up, according to a USA Today/Rock the Vote poll conducted in March. Clinton would get 52 percent of those votes to 19 percent for Trump. The bad news for her is the poll also found that 29 percent of Sanders supporters said they would sit out the general election or vote for Trump.

—With assistance from Ben Brody.

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