Primaries renew fears about Democratic unity in presidential race

Democrats are worried their party unity is fraying five months out from the presidential election as several contested primaries pitting progressives against mainstream Democrats go down to the wire.

Some Democrats have begun pointing the finger at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), saying he’s been consumed with down-ballot elections at the expense of promoting Biden’s bid for the White House.

The Democrats, who are not affiliated with the Biden campaign, say Sanders needs to do more to make sure progressives fall in line behind Joe Biden in November. 

While they concede Sanders has done more to help Biden than he did in the 2016 race for then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, they still say Sanders needs to use his influence with his supporters to ensure they turn out and donate to Biden’s campaign. 

Sanders’s endorsement of half a dozen insurgent candidates this week in upcoming primaries who are taking on establishment favorites has added to the unease felt by some Democrats. 

“He should be out there every week reminding his supporters of what’s at stake,” said one Democratic strategist. “He needs to start mending fences now. Not two or three months from now. Anything less isn’t good enough.” 

Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Clinton, said that the biggest area of need from Sanders is on the fundraising front. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) raised $6 million at a virtual fundraiser for Biden. Another event co-hosted by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) raised $3.5 million.

Sanders, who crushed his competitors in fundraising during the primary “could in one hour raise Biden north of $10 million, and the symbolism would be worth twice that,” Reines said.

“The opportunity cost of him not doing significant events of any type isn’t simply leaving money on the table. It can be construed that he’s not fully on board,” Reines added.  

Sanders has said he will not raise money for the Biden campaign, but he has been a vocal supporter in nearly every other way.

Last month, Sanders also asked his supporters to turn down the rhetoric on social media platforms such as Twitter, worried that the divisiveness would spill over into November.

He held a virtual event with Biden after endorsing him with many primaries still left on the calendar, imploring his supporters to put aside their differences and back the presumptive nominee. Sanders’s allies say he will continue to do everything he can to elect Biden. 

“He’s made it crystal clear at every turn that Biden winning and Trump losing is the most important thing,” said Larry Cohen, the chairman of Our Revolution, the grassroots group that sprang from Sanders’s 2016 campaign. “He believes that in his bones. He’s made it clear that they have differences in policy but also that there’s no comparison with Trump. 

“He as much as anyone you can find wants Biden to win,” Cohen added.

Sanders has been extremely active in recent weeks in working to elect progressive members to the House and Senate.

Sanders is supporting Democrat Jamaal Bowman’s efforts to unseat Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). And he’s backed state Rep. Charles Booker’s (D) challenge to former Marine combat pilot Amy McGrath in Kentucky for the right to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Biden has not endorsed in either race.

Sanders and Biden have had ongoing discussions about issues important to both sides, and their top advisers have also been in regular contact. 

Last month, the two former primary rivals announced the formation of a joint task force with the intention of unifying the party before Election Day. The task force includes prominent allies on both sides, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a top supporter of Sanders, and former Secretary of State John Kerry, a Biden supporter.

The latest Quinnipiac University survey released this week found Biden leading Trump by 8 points nationally, with 93 percent of Democrats saying they’ll support Biden.

However, some Democrats are worried about Biden’s standing among key demographics that supported Sanders in the primary. And Biden faces a clear enthusiasm gap against Trump, leading to concerns that some on the left will stay home, as they did in 2016, when Clinton lost narrowly to Trump.

The Quinnipiac survey found Biden at 57 percent support among Hispanics, who broke for Sanders in the primary. Clinton won 66 percent support from Latinos in 2016, down from former President Obama’s 71 percent in 2012.

The same poll found Biden at 58 percent support among young people. That’s slightly better than Clinton in 2016 but still a potential area of concern. In the past election, 13 million young people turned out for Clinton, compared with 9 million for Trump. But 2 million voted for a third-party candidate, which may have tipped the balance of the election in favor of Trump.

A new Monmouth University survey released this week raised further questions about enthusiasm around Biden’s campaign and his standing on the left.

Only 55 percent of Biden’s backers in the primary said they’re enthusiastic about supporting him in the general election.

Thirty-six percent of Sanders’s primary voters said they want to see the results overturned at the national convention, including 17 percent who said they’re disappointed that Sanders endorsed Biden.

Overall, 81 percent of Sanders supporters said they’d vote for Biden in November, compared with 11 percent who said they’d go third party, 5 percent who said they’d sit out or are unsure, and 4 percent who said they’d back Trump.

“It’s not clear what to make of these numbers. Nearly all the Democrats we interviewed are behind Biden for November, but losing up to 15 percent of Sanders supporters, even to a third-party candidate, could be problematic if the race is extremely tight,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “The question is, will these voters really go that route when the time comes?”

Still, Murray said it is reasonable to assume that “disaffection among Sanders voters is lower now than it was four years ago” for Clinton.

Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist said there are two words that will define the election: “And that’s Donald Trump.”

“At the end of the day, you may have a few scattered people who may stay home, but there will be a tidal wave of people coming out in the wake of Black Lives Matter,” he said. “Nobody should be worried about these polling numbers in the middle of the summer with no general election campaign going on.”

And Biden’s allies say Sanders has been a huge asset and a team player.

The former vice president has endorsed a handful of progressive policies since winning the nomination, and the Biden and Sanders teams say they’re working closely together as the joint task force winds down.

Some Biden allies noted that it’s still early in the cycle and the coronavirus has made it difficult to campaign. They say Sanders is focusing his attention on the primaries because they are happening now and fully expect him to do everything he can to get Biden elected as November nears.

“Vice President Biden is honored to have Sen. Sanders’s strong support and will continue working closely with him in the coming months to ensure that we defeat Donald Trump this November,” said Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Democratic primaries Donald Trump Eliot Engel Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Kerry Mitch McConnell Presidential Race

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video