Updated: January 25, 2020 1:47:15 pm
Written by Jonathan Martin
Democrats have always represented a cacophonous array of individuals and interests, but the so-called big tent is now stretching over a constituency so unwieldy that it’s easy to understand why voters remain torn this close to Iowa, where no clear front-runner has emerged.
The party’s voters are splintered across generational, racial and ideological lines, prompting some liberals to express reluctance about rallying behind a moderate presidential nominee, and those closer to the political middle to voice unease with a progressive standard-bearer.
The lack of a united front has many party leaders anxious — and for good reason. In more than 50 interviews across three early-voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — a number of Democratic primary voters expressed grave reservations about the current field of candidates, and in some cases a clear reluctance to vote for a nominee who was too liberal or too centrist for their tastes.
As she walked out of a campaign event for former Vice President Joe Biden in Fort Dodge this week, Barbara Birkett said she was leaning toward caucusing for Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and dismissed the notion of even considering the two progressives in the race, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“No, I’m more of a Republican and that’s just a little bit too far to the left for me,” said Birkett, a retiree. She said that she’d like to support a Democrat this November because of her disdain for Trump but that Sanders would “be a hard one.”
Elsewhere on the increasingly broad Democratic spectrum, Pete Doyle, who attended a Sanders rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, last weekend, had a ready answer when asked about voting for Biden: “Never in a million years.” He said that if Biden won the nomination, he would either vote for a third-party nominee or sit out the general election.
The uncertainty about party unity has been exacerbated in recent days by clashes among the Democratic candidates, as well as one involving a prominent party leader.
Sanders and Warren have accused one another of lying about a private conversation in 2018 over whether a woman could become president; Sanders and Biden have attacked each other over Social Security and corruption; and Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, has come off the sidelines to stoke her rivalry with Sanders, declaring that “nobody likes him.”
The lack of consensus among Democratic voters, 10 days before the presidential nominating primary begins with Iowa caucuses, has led some party leaders to make unusually fervent and early pleas for unity. On Monday alone, a pair of influential Democratic congressmen issued strikingly similar warnings to different audiences in different states.
“We get down to November, there’s only going to be one nominee,” Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, said at a ceremony for Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Statehouse in Columbia. “Nobody can afford to get so angry because your first choice did not win. If you stay home in November, you are going to get Trump back.”
“No matter who our nominee is, we can’t make the mistake that we made in ’16,” Rep. Dave Loebsack of Iowa said that night in Cedar Rapids as he introduced his preferred 2020 candidate, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, at a town hall meeting. “We all got to get behind that person so we can get Donald Trump out of office,” Loebsack added.
Most Democrats believe that the deep revulsion their party’s voters and activists share for Trump will ultimately help heal primary season wounds and rally support behind whoever emerges as the nominee. “If it means getting rid of Donald Trump, they would swallow Attila the Hun,” state Rep. Todd Rutherford, the Democratic leader of the South Carolina House, said of his party’s rank-and-file.
Vivid as the surface differences are between Sanders and Biden, what’s even more revealing are the views that emerge in polling and conversations with their supporters.
A new CNN survey showed that about as many Democrats under 50 would be upset or dissatisfied with Biden as the nominee as they would be enthusiastic. And among those older than 65, views were even starker about Sanders: just 23% said they’d be enthusiastic about him while 33% said they’d be upset or dissatisfied.
Sanders has tried to bolster his standing with older voters, and lessen their ardor for Biden, by trumpeting his support for Social Security and highlighting the former vice president’s past willingness to consider cuts to the program — a contrast Sanders supporters believe is vital given Trump’s suggestion this week that he’d pursue entitlement trims.
Interviews with Sanders supporters at his events in New Hampshire and at the King Day gathering in South Carolina revealed a group of progressive activists who were as dedicated to him as they were in 2016 — and who were uneasy about his rivals, especially Biden. That was borne out in a new poll of New Hampshire primary voters this week from Suffolk University, which indicated that nearly a quarter of the Vermont senator’s supporters would not commit to backing the party’s nominee if it was not Sanders.
That number could drop by November if Sanders does not win the nomination: research shows that most of Sanders’ supporters eventually rallied to Clinton against Trump. Yet it would not necessarily happen easily, especially if Sanders’ supporters believe he’s been treated unfairly by the party.
Many Sanders supporters who said they would grudgingly support one of his rivals against Trump quickly added that that’s all they’d do, ruling out doing the volunteer work that is the lifeblood of all campaigns.
“I just couldn’t morally,” Laura Satkowski said, explaining why she would not canvass or make phone calls on behalf of Biden. “I don’t like his policies.”
Some pro-Sanders households are mixed.
Michelle McKay and her partner, Bill Davis, came to the South Carolina Statehouse from their home in Raleigh, North Carolina, she wearing a vest festooned with Sanders buttons, to show their support for their candidate.
“Hell no,” McKay said about the prospect of backing Biden. Reminded that North Carolina could be a pivotal state in the general election, she said: “I don’t care. My vote is not going to an establishment Democrat.”
Davis, though, said that while he didn’t want to vote for anybody besides Sanders, he’d cast a ballot for any Democrat against Trump. “I think the party will come together,” he said, as McKay looked on unconvinced.
If it all seems messy, and the party hopelessly fragmented, that’s for good reason, said Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor and health and human services secretary who grew up in Democratic politics as the daughter of a former Ohio governor.
“This primary is a reflection of the politics of the country at large,” Sebelius said. “There are clearly differences among people who still feel incremental change is the best way of getting things done, and folks who say we need more to pursue more radical change.”
She said she’d be more worried if Democrats didn’t have Trump as “a rallying cry,” but conceded there was no candidate on the horizon who could fully unify the party’s factions.
“There is no savior who’s going to rescue us from the current state of affairs,” she said. “We’re all going to need to save each other.”
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