LEESBURG, Va. — Bill Huss describes himself as Christian and conservative, but he doesn’t like President Donald Trump.
“He’s not a nice person," said Huss, 66. So on Tuesday here, he hoped to pick a Democrat who could defeat Trump. But Huss wasn’t sure what he would do if Sen. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic nomination.
“If Bernie Sanders was the nominee, my God, I might have to vote for that idiot,” Huss said, meaning Trump.
He voted for Joe Biden on Tuesday.
In this rapidly growing, wealthy suburb about 40 miles outside Washington, Huss represents the kind of voter who has become a critical piece of the Democratic coalition since Trump’s election — including in Pennsylvania. Voters like him played a major role in Biden’s remarkable surge in Virginia and other Super Tuesday states across the country.
Much like similar areas outside Philadelphia, affluent suburbs in Northern Virginia have increasingly become Democratic strongholds as they have grown more diverse, and as moderate voters recoiled from Trump’s caustic persona.
And as in Pennsylvania, Democrats have come to rely on those suburbs to offset Republicans’ growing strength in rural areas.
Biden, who had massive support among African Americans, dominated D.C.'s Virginia suburbs Tuesday as turnout in the state almost doubled compared with the 2016 primary.
His victory there raised questions about who can draw the broadest array of support, and whether Sanders’ calls for a grassroots revolution can truly expand the Democratic electorate, as he has claimed, or would instead repel a newly reliable piece of the party’s support.
Asim Shaikh, 55, said he considers himself an independent, and wants to see Trump defeated. But he won’t support Sanders.
“I would never vote for him. His math doesn’t add up,” Shaikh said after voting for Mike Bloomberg on Tuesday in Ashburn, Va. Bloomberg dropped out of the race Wednesday and endorsed Biden, after more than $500 million in spending failed to translate into significant traction with voters.
“If it’s a choice between Sanders and Trump, I will vote for Trump, because I don’t want socialism,” Shaikh said.
Sanders has built his electability argument around igniting a surge of liberal and working-class voters who would, in theory, reshape the political landscape. Yet while the enthusiasm of his supporters is unmistakable, so far, there’s little evidence of a surge of new voters. First-time voters overwhelmingly favored Sanders on Tuesday, but made up only 13% of the electorate, according to NBC exit polls in nine of the 14 states that voted.
Meanwhile Democrats’ actual political gains since 2016 have largely been fueled by moderate voters, especially suburban college-educated women, including in the Philadelphia suburbs. Both Leesburg and Ashburn lie in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, the wealthiest in the country. In 2018, voters here elected a Democrat for the first time in about 40 years.
Biden took 51% of the vote in the district Tuesday, while 24% backed Sanders.
And in Virginia, 40% of first-time Democratic voters supported Biden, CNN’s exit poll found, more than any other candidate.
"The turnouts turned out for us,” Biden said in his victory speech Tuesday night.
Though Sanders actually performed slightly better in the Virginia suburbs than he did in its rural or urban areas, many suburban voters were driven more by distaste for Trump’s behavior than by an ideological pull to the left. About 58% of the state’s Democratic electorate said their main motivation was to beat Trump, and 63% of those voters chose Biden, according to exit polls by CNN.
Many of the state’s voters work in or around government in nearby Washington, making them part of the establishment class Trump and Sanders have vilified.
Caitlin Manson, a health and wellness consultant in Ashburn, said most of her clients are Republicans who “hate Trump, but they won’t vote for Sanders.”
So while Manson, 24, preferred a more progressive option, she voted for Biden. “Whoever can beat Trump is what I care about,” she said.
In nearby Leesburg, Darwin Hanna, 55, said Biden’s plan to strengthen the Affordable Care Act was more realistic than Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, and less likely to harm other Democrats on the ballot.
“I’m not sure how much support nationwide in a general election Sanders could get,” said Hanna, another Biden voter.
In interviews with about 30 voters, there was a consistent dividing line. Those whose top priority was just winning almost always picked Biden, and those who listed a specific issue as a top concern, such as health care or climate change, were usually with Sanders.
“Trump scares me to death and I don’t see Bernie being much different,” said Gary Shulz, 77. “I’m not looking for any kind of revolution. I’m looking for someone to unite the country again.”
Yet while older and more affluent voters felt comfortable with Biden’s promises to restore order, younger and working-class voters often want more drastic action. Many feel left behind by the Great Recession and political and economic elites, and fear the dangers of climate change.
Scott Gauthier, 26, said he has been held back by the prospect of big medical bills as he gets tested for neurological problems that have caused a seizure and fainting. He has insurance but has to pay a large deductible.
“I want to move out and start my life independently and I feel like something so crucial is holding me back,” said Gauthier, of Ashburn. “We should be focusing on helping society, not a certain bracket." He supported Sanders.
Declan T. Galvin, 24, said the gap between the upper class and working class “is becoming unsustainable.” Fiona Galvin, 26, his sister, said Sanders is the only candidate with the vision to meet the challenges presented by climate change and economic inequality.
The two Leesburg voters were examples of the overwhelming support Sanders has with younger voters. Almost 60% of voters aged 18 to 29 across the country supported him Tuesday. Latino voters, a potentially powerful force in several key states, also strongly backed Sanders.
“You cannot beat Trump with the same old same old kind of politics,” Sanders told supporters Tuesday night. “What we need is a new politics that brings working-class people into our political movement. Which brings young people into our political movement.”
Yet even some young voters worried about his path to victory. Devon Carter, 24, supported Sanders in 2016, but he backed Biden on Tuesday in Leesburg.
“Electability was my No. 1 [issue]. I just can’t do another four years of Trump,” Carter said. As for the more liberal options, Carter said: “They’re good, but they’re not going to pull anybody from the right or the middle.”