One question has loomed large in the Democratic primary: Will Bernie Sanders’ supporters vote for Hillary Clinton if she wins the nomination? Some Democrats fear that, thanks to this very contentious primary, Sanders’ voters might refuse to pull the lever for Clinton in November and thus toss the election to Donald Trump. Now, a group of Sanders allies — operating under the assumption that he’ll win the California primary but lose the nomination — have come up with a clever workaround that would allow Sanders to stay involved with the election without running a third-party campaign. Or even campaigning for Clinton.
The plan comes in the form of a 1,600-word document, crafted by a group of staffers and volunteers from the Sanders campaign and obtained by Politico. The general idea is for Sanders to run a parallel campaign against Donald Trump during the general election, one that isn’t explicitly tied to Hillary Clinton or the Democratic Party. Sanders wouldn’t be running as a candidate himself; instead, he’d be leading an independent organization devoted to defeating Trump and, just as importantly, endorsing down-ballot candidates who fit with Sanders’ progressive vision.
“Senator Sanders should proceed to lay out his plan to build an organization completely independent of the Clinton campaign,” the document reads, “that will single-mindedly devote itself to educating Americans about the threat of right wing (some say fascist) takeover and the task of identifying and mobilizing voters to defend our democracy in November 2016 and beyond.”
This is a very intriguing idea. The proposal, which is still in its nascent stages, is clearly an attempt to ensure that disillusioned Sanders supporters ultimately come out and vote for Democrats in November — or at the very least, that they don’t defect and vote Trump. It could work.
What normally happens after a primary is that the defeated candidate buries the ax, grudgingly supports the winner, and hits the campaign trail for them. But Sanders has much less room to make such a maneuver, thanks to a few peculiarities of his candidacy. For one, the Vermont senator has been critical not only of Clinton’s policies, but her general approach to politics as well (taking money from super PACs, giving speeches to Goldman Sachs, and so on). He’s implied, though not outright stated, that she’s is susceptible to corruption and influence-peddling.
Considering Sanders’ entire appeal is based on tearing down the status quo, he risks looking extremely hypocritical if he embraces Clinton too strongly in the general election. This is doubly true given that Sanders draws a good deal of support from voters who intensely dislike Clinton and have no loyalty to the Democratic Party. It sounds silly, but it’s not inconceivable that a chunk of Sanders supporters could turn on him if he aligns himself too closely the Democratic Party.
If, however, Sanders actively campaigns in a capacity that’s completely divorced from Clinton and the Democrats, he might be able to circumvent this problem. He could mobilize his supporters, get them to the polls, and indirectly help the Democratic nominee win in November, but in a way that doesn’t compromise his own values or outsider status. The focus would be not on how great Clinton is, but how terrifying Trump is. But the goal — defeating Trump — would be the same.
The prospect of having Sanders identify and campaign for progressive downballot candidates is a crucial part of the strategy. If Sanders gives his stamp of approval to some truly liberal candidates running for the Senate and House, that will give his supporters a much stronger reason to head to the polls than if he simply endorsed Clinton. And some of those supporters, once they’re in the booth, might decide to check the box for Clinton.
There are some pitfalls to this strategy. For one, Sanders’ supporters may not have an appetite for staying involved in this election if the prospect of a Sanders presidency is off the table. It also might be too clever by half — is campaigning against Trump really all that different from campaigning for Clinton? And then there’s a potential fundraising conflict: Bernie's organization would have to compete with both the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee for donors, which could revive the very same tension between the two camps that they’ll both be trying to avoid.
Still, this plan has a lot of appeal. It addresses both the immediate goal of unifying the Democratic Party and the long-term goal of sustaining the movement Sanders has built beyond just this election. It’s an outside-the-box solution, and while it still needs to be fleshed out a bit more, it’s a very smart jumping-off point.