While Joe Biden was rightly the focus of the Democratic National Convention last week, Bernie Sanders could not have performed better. In his eight-minute speech on the first night of the 2020 virtual convention, the Vermont Senator left no doubting the unity of the Democratic Party ahead of the 2020 US presidential election. In comparison, his 2016 DNC was mired by repercussions of a close primary between the progressive Sanders and moderate Hillary Clinton.
A Democratic party email leak showing Clinton favouritism spurred walkouts, silent protests and even boos for Sanders himself after he told supporters to back Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Come election day 2016, close Democratic losses in Midwestern states–which Sanders performed well in during the primaries–have partly been attributed by some to Sanders supporters not voting, or backing Trump.
While the 2020 Sanders campaign finished earlier as moderates and African Americans rallied behind Biden, questions remained about whether the similarly moderate Biden could gain progressive support. However, an Economist/YouGov poll this month showed strong support for Biden from Sanders voters, with 89 per cent supporting Biden and three per cent supporting Trump. Of course, part of this is related to President Trump’s unpopularity.
In a July New York Times poll, 69 per cent of Sanders supporters say their vote is against Trump, while only 26 per cent say their vote is for Biden. In comparison, a Fox News poll found 62 per cent of Trump supporters were motivated by enthusiasm for the President, with only 33 per cent backing the incumbent because of fear for a Biden presidency.
Trump’s former re-election campaign manager Brad Parscale touted this enthusiasm gap as “the most important factor in this campaign”. Considering this, Bernie Sanders’ DNC speech remained important in shoring up progressive support.
A Speech for Progressives
While other Democrat speakers used broad themes of decency, compassion and democracy to contrast Biden to Trump, Sanders offered an approach grounded in specifics.
Sanders began by highlighting “the worst public health crisis in 100 years and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression,” and current issues like climate change. Furthermore, while others used generalised brushstrokes to paint Trump as having “shown no interest in putting in the work”, Sanders emphasised details such as lapsing stimulus checks to portray alleged Presidential failings. This contemporary focus plays to his base of young liberals, more likely to be concerned with current issues than nostalgic views of politics.
Sanders understands that more ideologically moderate voters are not going to look to him for guidance. Instead, he attempted to reach out specifically to his ‘movement’. A few months ago, a still-in-contention Sanders would channel supporter enthusiasm toward attacking “the Establishment”. This time, Sanders focuses his supporters on defending progressive “ideas” such as Medicare for All, rather than encouraging them to attack others.
"Let us be clear, if Donald Trump is re-elected, all the progress we have made will be in jeopardy,” stresses Sanders.
Importantly, if the fear of losing their progressive “movement” was not enough, Sanders brilliantly provides tangible reasons why his supporters should vote for Biden, addressing the so-called ‘enthusiasm gap’. “Together we must build a nation which is more equitable, compassionate and more inclusive. I know Joe Biden will begin that fight on Day 1,” says Sanders. The former Democratic frontrunner then rattles off Biden policy plans, including raising the minimum wage and lowering Medicare from 65 to 60. By stressing these policies to followers, Sanders effectively pitches Biden to progressives while the nominee is able to focus on Trump and ideologically centrist voters.
Understandably, some Democrats fret over Bernie supporters not backing Biden in a manner similar to the anti-Clinton movement, as there is a case that Sanders holdouts were one reason Clinton lost. However, political obsessives forget the demographic Sanders inspired in 2016.
In 2016, lower-income white voters were a key part of the Sanders coalition. In 2020, lower-income white voters supported Biden, leaving Sanders with a younger liberal base. According to Vanderbilt Professor John Sides, the demographics of 2016 Sanders supporters meant “many of them weren’t predisposed to support Clinton in the first place”. Thus, there is a strong case that 2016 Sanders popularity was based on anti-Clintonism, just as Biden momentum was based on avoiding a Sanders nomination. Considering this, Democrats should not fear Biden support being based on avoiding Trump rather than enthusiasm for the former Vice-President.
Still, with incumbent President’s being notoriously difficult to defeat, Sanders needed to encourage progressives to form a broad Biden coalition with moderates. Although some high-profile pro-Bernie Twitter users may grandstand, Sanders knows that for Democrats “the price of failure is just too great to imagine.”
Lachlan Abbott is an undergraduate Politics, International Relations and Journalism student at Swinburne University with an interest in American politics and Australia-Indonesia relations.