Matthew Petti, Columbia University
It is clear that Hillary Rodham Clinton secured the Democratic Party nomination with a majority of primary votes. However, it is also clear that supporters of her rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, make up a significant portion of the party’s base. Many of these supporters feel slighted by Clinton and the party at large, and movements such as “Bernie or Bust” and “#NeverHillary” have emerged despite Sanders’s endorsement of Clinton. Other former Sanders supporters are flocking to third party candidates such as Jill Stein of the Green Party, and even radical social movements outside of the electoral process. One of the greatest challenges to the Clinton campaign will be recuperating this part of the Democratic base. The four days of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia provided a glimpse into the tactics Clinton will likely use to secure their support.
This year’s election features some of the most disliked candidates in recent history. The net “unfavorability” ratings of both Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump are literally unprecedented in recent history. Much of the dissatisfaction with Clinton comes from her left. A drawn-out primary season led supporters of Senator Sanders to feel cheated by the Democratic establishment; a recent leak of internal DNC emails seemed to confirm the allegations in the minds of many. Consequently, support for third party candidates is on the rise. When included in the polls, Green Party candidate Jill Stein has been drawing progressively more support away from Clinton. More surprisingly, right-wing Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson actually pulls more from Clinton than Trump. On issues from foreign policy to the liberalization of drug laws, Johnson actually runs to Clinton’s left; additionally, many “#NeverTrump” Republicans who might have been inclined towards Clinton now have another option. Although third parties draw voters from both candidates, Clinton faces a unique two-front threat.
In addition to third parties, disillusioned voters may also choose to stay home. A sharp decline in voter turnout at the Democratic primaries should be a worrying sign for a candidate facing off against an opponent whose very strategy involves mobilizing voters who would not normally come to the polls. Therefore, much of the messaging at the convention was aimed at pushing the Democratic base to the polls. President Obama criticized “timid souls who criticize from the sidelines,” telling voters that they “can’t afford to stay home just because she might not align with you on every issue.” Indeed, speeches consistently downplayed differences between Sanders and Clinton; from Elizabeth Warren on the first day to Hillary Clinton on the last, several speakers “thanked” Bernie Sanders for mobilizing a movement within the Democratic Party. The first night culminated in Sanders himself endorsing Clinton. Although lukewarm, his speech emphasized to voters who “think [they] can sit it out” that Trump represents a danger greater than whatever differences Sanders supporters have with Clinton.
At some points, it actually seemed as if the convention focused more on Trump than the woman it nominated for President. Much of the content, but especially video clips displayed in between speeches, highlighted Trump’s negative personality traits and dangerous policy proposals. For voters insufficiently enthused about Clinton, fear of her opponent would have to suffice as a motivation. “They’ve poured out their heart for Bernie. What happened with the DNC was terrible, we can all agree on that. I get why they’re so upset,” said Michael Vásquez, the nephew of a Clinton delegate, “Hopefully once they vent it out, they can come around, because Trump is not going to give them anything they want. We’re all screwed with Trump.” Fear of Trump serves the Clinton campaign in two ways, both discouraging voters in the center from voting for him, and encouraging voters on the Left to march behind Clinton. “Love trumps hate,” one of the slogans on official campaign merchandise distributed inside the Wells Fargo Center, summarizes the Clinton strategy quite well: to appear as a consensus-builder in the face of a very polarizing opponent.
Of course, the entire party was not wooed by these tactics, and many Sanders supporters continued to attempt to disrupt the convention. The first day saw audible chanting throughout several speeches, including a twenty second span when Elizabeth Warren was nearly booed off the stage for endorsing Clinton. The DNCC was careful to keep the cameras away from dissent within the crowd. When former CIA director Leon Panetta was nearly drowned out by anti-war chanting, Clinton delegates and members of the press shouted the letters “U, S, A” repeatedly at the protesters. This moment more than any other also signaled a right-wing shift in the Democratic Party. Ben Jacobs, a reporter from the Guardian, claimed that delegates were actually given “counter-chants” to use in response to specific protests. Delegates were also told that any display of Sanders signs would result in the revocation of their security credentials. At several points, staff physically guarded exits to the arena. While the spotlight was on the Wells Fargo Center, Democratic operatives made sure to manage the party’s message with a combination of carrot and stick.
However, the careful choreography of the crowd’s reactions did not entirely keep media attention away from dissent on the Left. Several hundred Sanders delegates carefully coordinated a walkout during the roll call vote on the second day, seizing the media tent in order to bring their message straight to journalists. The protest was perhaps more effective because the official campaigns had been kept mostly in the dark. “I learned of it just before it,” a Sanders delegate who participated in the walkout claimed, “if it was planned out early, I wouldn’t know.” Later reports showed that organizers, who had kept higher-ups completely unaware, only announced the time of the walkout minutes before, by text message and word-of-mouth. That such a decentralized campaign was able to mobilize hundreds of people nearly spontaneously was made even more impressive by the fact that the Sanders campaign staff was actively working to keep protests quiet.
Despite the senator’s own lukewarm endorsement of Clinton, his staff was clearly cooperating on a high level with the Clinton campaign. Sanders staff discouraged any type of protest, and I actually witnessed in Wells Fargo Center a delegate being coached by a staffer not to do anything that would embarrass the Clinton campaign. “Bernie Peacekeepers” working with the campaign were present at protests outside the Wells Fargo Center as well, and an activist who wishes to remain anonymous reported that they were trained to cooperate with the police and remove “troublemakers” from the crowd. A particularly tense moment occurred on the second night of the convention, when a far-left demonstration collided with a group of Sanders supporters. A Bernie Peacekeeper reportedly suffered second degree burns attempting to stomp out a burning flag.
Despite widespread opposition leading up to and during the convention, Clinton is secure in her position as the Democratic nominee. Her greatest threat is now the prospect of a disgruntled Left refusing to come to the polls altogether. With the treatment of the Sanders campaign a sensitive issue, the Democratic Party must strike a balance between managing the message and appearing to give a place to Sanders supporters. Philadelphia was a preview of an attempt at that balance.