LOS ANGELES—Bernie Sanders is still in the presidential race, he and his supporters say, to win it. But in an interview with the Los Angeles Times editorial board published on Wednesday, Sanders acknowledged his uphill climb. “I would fully concede that we have a narrow path to victory,” he said. “But it is a path.” With the delegate count stacked against him, the big Bernie question now is what will happen to his voters if and when he leaves the race.
Polls earlier this month suggested that Sanders’ fevered base of older white liberal and diverse millennial supporters would not be joining Hillary Clinton’s campaign en masse if the Vermont senator lost. In a March 3–6 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, a full 33 percent of Sanders supporters said they would not support Clinton in a general election. A USA TODAY/Rock the Vote poll released on March 14, meanwhile, showed Clinton only retaining 65 percent of millennial Sanders supporters, almost exactly the same amount as general supporters in the WSJ survey. But at a surprise rally for Sanders at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre on Wednesday, many supporters I talked to, at least, seemed open to voting Hillary.
I asked nearly a dozen Sanders supporters what they would do if Bernie lost, and nearly every one of them indicated that they would support Clinton in a general election. A handful of them said they would do so enthusiastically. The animating factor seemed to be Donald Trump.
“At this point I would say, yes [I would support Clinton], because I would rather have Hillary than Trump or Cruz,” said 26-year-old makeup artist Amy Cohen after some hesitation when asked what she might do if Sanders lost. “I’m terrified [by them].” Her 69-year-old father, Dennis, who she brought to the rally and who hadn’t attended a political event since George McGovern’s 1972 campaign, was much quicker to respond: “I’d absolutely support her. Absolutely.”
Luis R., a 25-year-old elementary school special education teacher who says he supported Clinton in 2008, would go back to her if Sanders were to lose, which he acknowledges is a strong likelihood.
“I’m aware that he’s not going to probably get the nomination, but I do believe it’s just standing up to the Democratic establishment, letting them know that it has to change,” he said of his continued support for Sanders against long odds.
Luis, who was born in Guatemala but came to this country when he was 1 year old and can’t vote because he is not a citizen, says he has been enthusiastically advocating for Sanders among his friends—and that he would do the same if Clinton were the nominee.
“If it’s Donald Trump, yes, [I would enthusiastically back Hillary], just because I think that Donald Trump is very troubling and very scary,” he told me. “While I don’t agree with her on 90 percent of issues—I think she’s a war hawk, I think she’s a corporate sellout—I do think that Donald Trump is scary enough to force someone to vote for her.”
For Luis, the fear is more than abstract. “I definitely have personal fear,” he said. “I wouldn’t get deported. But I do fear for other people in the community.” He added that he was concerned that there might be Trump-inspired violence against migrant communities in places like Arizona, Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Others I spoke with said they would “support Hillary Clinton with every ounce of my being” were she to face Trump and back her “110 percent” against the blustery media mogul.
The one Sanders supporter who adamantly said she would not support Clinton was 23-year-old Evergreen State College student Hallie Sills, who traveled from Washington to attend the Los Angeles event. Sills, who described herself as “neo-Marxist,” was carrying a sign that read “I DIDNT BEAT UP A TRUMP SUPPORTER 4 BERNIE,” and spoke of Sanders’ other “tour” dates as if they were rock shows. (“I tried to go see him in Seattle. I tried to see him in Vancouver this weekend. I tried to see him in San Diego yesterday, and then my friend sent me tickets for this today last night. I live in Olympia, Washington, so the day I left to come down here was the day of his tour of Washington, and I missed it, and I was really, really mad yesterday about missing the San Diego one because I couldn’t find a ride.”)
“This is a tough question,” she said when asked what she would do if Sanders lost. “I think I would—I’ve said in a few different conversations and out of a little bit of rage and excitement that I would honestly vote for Trump so that I could witness a presidential assassination. But that’s a little intense, so I would rather look into an independent party.”
Jenna Steckel, 25, said she was too traumatized by Ralph Nader and hanging chads costing Al Gore the 2000 election (during which she was 9) to ever vote for a third-party candidate, even though her “politics are aligned with [perennial Green Party candidate] Jill Stein.”
Steckel said she probably wouldn’t be active in supporting Clinton, but she would vote for her.
Even if Sanders’ candidacy doesn’t ultimately succeed, Steckel felt like there was a good deal of benefit for progressives to be gained from him staying in the race. “What I’m most excited about is his kind of [shifting] the Overton window,” she said, referring to a term that describes the range of opinions welcome in public discourse. “I kind of just wanted to show up today to just give a message to kind of the powers that be that whatever happens with this election, there are a lot of us, we’re not going away, we’re just going to get older and snowball.”
“We will continue to be heard,” she added.