To Michele Downing, just beating President Donald Trump isn’t enough.
There are too many people facing huge medical bills, crushing student debt, and climate change, she said, to settle for a status quo victory. That’s why Downing, of Bethlehem, Pa., devoted her energy to Bernie Sanders, traveling to South Carolina and Virginia to aid his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and running as a delegate in Pennsylvania.
But now that Sanders is considering his next steps in the face of almost certain defeat, Downing isn’t sure what to do. She doesn’t think he should drop out, not with so many supporters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere still eager to vote for him. And she’s not sure if she can support Joe Biden, who appears sure to become the Democratic nominee after another string of victories Tuesday in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona.
“Joe Biden has supported NAFTA, and he’s taken money from union-busting law firms, and my house is a union household,” said Downing, 50, a social worker who comes from four generations of steelworkers and highway workers. “In my family, you don’t do that.”
Downing in many ways encapsulates the views of Sanders supporters in Pennsylvania this week as they processed their champion’s likely defeat. Like Sanders, they face growing pressure to fall in line with a candidate who has a strong majority of Democratic support, but only partly shares their views.
While Biden voters typically say they trust him or feel comfortable with him, and view him as the safest choice against Trump, Sanders supporters express fervent devotion. Many see the Vermont senator as more than a candidate. They see a movement that speaks for people who have been ignored, one that they don’t want to see silenced again.
Many fear that Biden offers a repeat of Hillary Clinton’s doomed establishment candidacy in 2016, but also feel an urgency to remove Trump.
Their skepticism speaks to the challenge the former vice president faces in consolidating liberal support even as he tries to turn his attention to Trump. Democrats painfully remember 2016, when Sanders supporters’ fury at Clinton and the Democratic National Committee lingered through a general election decided by tiny margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Even a small fracture on the left could again prove decisive.
But for many Sanders voters, specific policies matter as much as winning.
"To give up and to vote for Biden is probably not in many members’ wheelhouse,“ said Mike Doyle, a member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Doyle is waiting to see how far left Biden might go on health care and what policies the party adopts at its national convention.
“We’re going to push him," Doyle said. "I don’t think that he can assume that we’re all just going to vote for him. He needs to earn our vote.”
The coronavirus pandemic has frustrated some Sanders voters, who see Democrats and Republicans embracing social programs out of necessity, but heartened others who believe it shows Sanders has changed the national debate.
“I’m confused about the political outrage that Bernie was going to be unelectable because of his policies, but now everyone wants to adopt them,” said Jonah Gardner, a DSA board member and Sanders supporter from Kensington.
Alexandria Khalil, a Sanders delegate from Jenkintown, pointed to the family leave policies and payouts to Americans that are now quickly moving through Congress. Those bills, she said, reflect policies Sanders champions.
And she argued that lawmakers should confront other issues with the same boldness.
“We have various types of coronaviruses going on in this world, whether it’s war, famine, disease,” she said. “Those are all coronaviruses in my mind.”
Khalil said without hesitation that she would vote for Biden if he is the Democratic nominee. Among those who raised doubts about the former vice president, none ruled out supporting him.
But many Sanders supporters said his “movement” would carry on.
“We’re not going to see another Bernie Sanders again for a while, but all of us have it in us to try to emulate him and remember this is about us, all of us, our neighbors,” Khalil said.
Joanne Beer of Philadelphia, who helped organize the grassroots group Philly for Bernie, saw a vast class divide, saying those who backed other Democrats were more likely to be comfortable financially, or have secure health care.
“I feel like the Democratic Party is doing all this work to court these Never Trump Republicans," said Beer, 39. "What kind of leverage do we have other than our votes to really make them understand that we want to vote for people who represent us?”
Beer said unless Biden makes concessions to progressive policies, it would be hard for her group to enthusiastically campaign for him. Gardner, from Philly DSA, agreed. Both said their groups would devote energy to down-ballot Democrats who could move the country closer to Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
“The party’s telling us to ‘vote blue no matter who.' I probably will, because I made the mistake of writing Bernie in on the last election,” said Bryan Pietrzak, a Sanders delegate from Erie. “I spent a week on the couch because of that decision. My girlfriend was really upset.”
But he blamed the Democratic establishment for another “coup” against Sanders this year, pointing to the way former Democratic contenders rallied around Biden just as Sanders appeared to have momentum.
He said liberals in the political class might fall in line with Biden, but questioned if ordinary voters like the ones he works with would follow.
“The working-class community as a whole knows that if we choose Biden, we’re going to get a lot of the same-old same-old,” said Pietrzak, 39, a machinist and union steward. He blamed Biden for trade deals that he said decimated manufacturing, and for status quo politics that left many disillusioned and seeking drastic change. “The symptoms of what he created barfed up Trump,” Pietrzak said.
Like several others, Pietrzak was never actively involved in campaigns until Sanders ran in 2016. “I got him," Pietrzak said. "I understood him.”
Yet despite the energy of Sanders’ supporters, Biden’s more moderate approach has shown far wider appeal. He has dominated the race the last several weeks with the help of African American voters and suburban moderates. Sanders’ promised youth revolution hasn’t materialized. In many states, his support has shrunk compared with 2016.
Biden has begun to embrace some more liberal policies in recent days as he seeks to pull the party together. He announced support for a version of Sanders’ free public college plan, saying it should apply to students from families with incomes of up to $125,000, and adopted a bankruptcy proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“Let me say especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Sen. Sanders, I hear you,” Biden said in his victory speech Tuesday.
Khalil, the delegate from Jenkintown, said she was “very sad” about how Sanders’ campaign has faltered.