Outrage from Sanders supporters may endanger Democratic unity

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., waves as he walks onto the stage during a rally on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Recent events in the Democratic presidential primary and Sen. Bernie Sanders' reaction to them are fueling fresh concerns that a divided party will turn against itself and hand the White House to presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, but some say these fears are unfounded.

Sanders supporters vocally, and according to some reports violently, revolted against what they felt was unfair treatment at the Nevada Democratic Party convention over the weekend, an incident that left state party chairwoman Roberta Lange facing death threats.

Sanders issued a defiant statement about the incident Tuesday, accusing Democratic leaders of preventing a "fair and transparent process" and defending his supporters' outrage, although he did condemn the threats.

The results of Tuesday's primaries, with Sanders defeating front-runner Hillary Clinton in Oregon and likely losing by less than a percentage point in Kentucky, illustrated the resistance some within the party continue to show to Clinton.

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who has been heavily criticized by the Sanders campaign for allegedly rigging the nomination process for Clinton, called for unity on CNN Wednesday.

"We need to focus on one thing," she said, "get through this primary and work to prepare for the general election."

Some top Democrats fear the anger and turmoil in Nevada could be a preview of national convention chaos in Philadelphia in July.

"It worries me a great deal," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told CNN. "You know, I don't want to go back to the '68 convention, because I worry about what it does to the electorate as a whole, and he should too."

"We saw what happened at the Trump rallies, which broke into violence, people punching one another," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said in an interview with CNN. "I don't want to see that happen at the Democratic Party."

Others say the party is far more united than it appears, and it will be even more so once a nominee is chosen and attention turns to defeating Trump in November.

"Even though the nominating process has gone on longer than expected, Hillary Clinton continues to have strong favorability ratings among all Democrats," said Craig Varoga, a Democratic strategist, "a distinction that Donald Trump does not enjoy among Republicans."

Although Sanders has sharpened his criticisms of Clinton in the later stages of the primaries, Varoga noted that he has not ridiculed her in the way Trump has every one of his opponents, and she has not trashed him either.

Sanders supporters see his success against establishment favorite Clinton as a positive development for the Democratic Party, not its death knell.

"I think he's being a great Democrat," said Arnie Arnesen, a liberal talk radio host based in New Hampshire, "and I think the party kind of knows that."

She feels Sanders has exposed some of the party's flaws and the ways it has lost touch with its base.

"What Bernie has done is not because he is not a Democrat," said Arnesen, a former Democratic gubernatorial and congressional candidate. "Because what Bernie is talking about, I have been talking about for 40 years."

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of pro-Sanders grassroots organization Democracy for America, downplayed the rifts in both parties, even if there are currently clear differences between the establishment and the base.

"The bottom line is both parties are going to come together," he said. Whether it is Sanders or Clinton, Democrats will realize their nominee is the best person to lead the party in November, and most Republicans are already reaching that conclusion about Trump.

Chamberlain dismissed any speculation that the divisions sparked by the 2016 primaries will lead to the downfall of the Democratic Party or the collapse of the two-party political system.

"That is classic hyperbole created by the DC fear circuit," he said. "Primaries get tough. This is the hardest time in the campaign for both sides."

Few people, besides Trump, are actively encouraging Sanders to mount an independent run, while prominent Republicans continue efforts to draft a conservative third candidate to represent their values.

"There is zero talk among Democrats of a third-party candidate, whereas mainstream Republicans would love for a less demagogic Republican to run as an independent," Varoga said.

Gary Nordlinger, a professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, also sees less of a concerted effort to damage the front-runner on the Democratic side.

"Compared to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party looks like the picture of Zen harmony."

A new Data Targeting poll indicates the general public remains very open to the idea of an independent candidate if Clinton and Trump are the two nominees, with 65 percent at least somewhat willing to consider supporting one.

Other surveys suggest partisans in both parties are already overwhelmingly prepared to support their nominee. In a head-to-head matchup, a new NBC/Survey Monkey poll found 87 percent of Democrats would support Clinton and an equal number of Republicans would vote for Trump.

Trump's views on trade, foreign policy, nuclear proliferation, and some social issues upend decades of Republican orthodoxy, whereas the policy differences between Clinton and Sanders are often seen as a matter of degrees. A common refrain from Clinton on the campaign trail is that she shares Sanders' progressive values but has more realistic and moderate proposals.

Exactly how full-throated of an endorsement a vanquished Sanders offers for Clinton could determine how willing his supporters are to unite behind her.

"A strong, enthusiastic Bernie Sanders could do wonders for Hillary Clinton in the general election," Nordlinger said.

He expects Democrats will support Clinton, even if they are not enthusiastic about her. The election will be decided by independents, though, and their decision is less predictable.

"Democrats will unite to defeat Trump, that is a 100% certainty," Varoga said. "Trump will further divide his party, but in the process will unite swing voters behind Hillary and against him."

Arnesen cautioned against placing too much emphasis on Sanders' role in bringing the party together for Clinton.

"In the end, they need to vote for her, so guess what, there's a lot of burden on her," she said. "She can't outsource the work to him."

Clinton will need to make a case to Sanders backers for why she deserves their vote.

"Elections are about saying, vote for me. Not because he told you to."

According to Chamberlain, the duty to unite the party falls on both candidates, and others.

"I think every single person that cares about defeating Donald Trump bears a responsibility for bringing the party together," he said.

Realistically, though, Sanders and Clinton are very different candidates and not everyone who likes him will get on board with her. Most, though, "understand that Donald Trump is not the solution to the problems facing America," Chamberlain said, and will support the nominee in the fall.

"It becomes so much easier to see through the fog of the campaign and remember we're all in this together to fight the same fight for a stronger America."

Although the trouble in Nevada and what some see as an insufficient response to it from Sanders have sparked calls for him to drop out of the race, supporters see strong reasons for him to keep fighting at least through the June 7 primaries.

"Bernie has every right to continue on to California," Arnesen said. "Because you know what, people should have a choice."

Even if Sanders loses the nomination, he is empowering disenfranchised voters in the states where he is winning, including in Oregon Tuesday.

"Tell the Democratic Party they should respect voting and they should respect the process," she said.

Sanders understands what is at stake, though, and Arnesen doubts he has any intent to undermine the party's ability to win in November, even if he just returns to the Senate after the election.

"He'll be a very different senator now," she said. "And you don't want to be a very different senator with President Trump. You want to be a very different senator with President Clinton."

There may be some "handwringing" over Sanders prolonging the primary process, Nordlinger said, but remaining on the campaign trail gives him a megaphone to spread his message and each delegate he wins gives him more leverage for speaking at and influencing the convention.

With Clinton ahead in votes, delegates, and superdelegates, Sanders' persistent victories have done little to dent her lead.

"Unless someone slips on a banana peel, there will either be a President Clinton or a President Trump in the White House next January," he said, "and I think people should just get used to it."

While Sanders has been criticized for continuing to tell his supporters that he can beat Clinton, Chamberlain emphasized that it is not mathematically impossible.

"First of all, he can still win," he said. "That just happens to be a fact. Is it hard? Yes. Is it likely? Maybe not."

In order ensure a "fair and safe convention," Chamberlain said, the DNC needs to convince Sanders supporters that the process is not rigged and that they are welcomed by the party. This involves evenly distributing delegates on key committees based on primary results, giving Sanders a visible speaking spot on stage, and providing transparency in how people get passes to the convention.

"We need to make sure the Bernie Sanders revolution is being brought within the party and not pushed out the door," he said.

Frayed as the party appears at the moment, strategists and experts believe Democrats will emerge in August energized and united behind their nominee.

"I see this as the healthiest, best thing that can happen to the Democratic Party," Arnesen said.

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