A Bernie Sanders supporter at a rally in California, 2016. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Shelly Prevost.

How to get Bernie bros to vote for Biden

To bring back Bernie Sanders supporters, Joe Biden’s campaign must mirror their concerns, focus on the team that would enter the administration, and stop blaming them for 2016.

Suppose that you are the campaign manager of the 2020 presidential campaign of former Vice-President Joe Biden. First of all, congratulations! You bet on the right horse! After months of uncertainty and some minor-to-moderate(-to-bizarre) gaffes from your candidate, you’ve squelched the other Democratic contenders and the inertia of name recognition has paid off (plus a timely endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn). I had my (serious) doubts that Biden could win the Democratic nomination in the age of Trump, populism and identity politics, but you’ve proved the naysayers wrong and your strategy has worked out in the end.

Now you’re off to the pesky tasks of the post-primary phase: rolling out endorsements, trying your best at fundraising despite the coronavirus pandemic, and managing a candidate who garners let’s just say ‘less-than-fiery’ enthusiasm among voters. Topping that list, of course, is to lock-in the Democratic base before your centrist pivot for the general. Let’s just put aside for a moment the fact that it might be (very) misguided to think of American voters as neatly laid out on an ideological continuum. Right now, your biggest worry is that the Bernie-wing of the party might not turn out in November and tip the election in favor of Trump. In fact, your stomach churns at the memory of Hillary Clinton conceding to Donald Trump in the hangover of that fateful November night in 2016, when it all could’ve been oh-so very different if only the ‘Bernie bros’ had turned out in slightly-higher numbers for Clinton. How can you make them see it as clearly as you do? That to stop Trump, who Bernie himself calls “the most dangerous president in the modern history of America”, they must get behind Biden. Plus, their passion and support (and small-dollar donations) are more than welcome in your united Democratic front against Trump! You ask yourself, in the words of Eric Cartman: “How do I reach these kids?

On the surface, a policy-ridden chasm separates Bernie bros and Biden’s coalition of conservative-to-somewhat-progressive Democrats. But you cannot afford to make any major leftward policy-shifts: your campaign is already wedded to a slew of carefully-crafted proposals that balance out a cacophony of interests. Besides, Biden would be called a ‘flip-flopper’ and risk alienating Never Trumpers and the white suburban women that the GOP is hemorrhaging. On the other hand, though, this strategy will likely hurt you with young voters, who have already been flaking from the Democratic coalition. Of course, not all young Americans are Bernie bros, but there is a lot of overlap on issues and style. Young Americans are concerned about climate change, want a bigger role for the state, and 70% say they would vote for a socialist, but they still break quite evenly between the two parties because they still haven’t found a political home yet. In 2008, young voters went for Obama by a +35-point margin, but in 2016, Clinton’s margin with this demographic went down from +36 in April to +19 on election day. As of April 2020, polls show Biden’s margin with young voters as low as +13, +12, +7 and even +0. And if that wasn’t already bad enough, now that the Tara Reade allegations are in full throttle, a whopping 40% of young Democrats want to boot the presumptive nominee from the ticket. So how can you expand your electoral coalition while leaving the base intact? The GOP managed to do it in 2016, surely you can too!

Perhaps I can help on this front. I study elections and public opinion, and I am well-acquainted with the online crevices where the Bernie bros roam. From this perspective, I want to offer some advice on how to get these voters to turn out for you in November. I assume that major policy shifts are out of the question because: (a) Biden doesn’t support them, and (b) it would compromise your appeal to moderates. So here are some cost-effective tips to help you in your herculean quest to carry Joe Biden all the way back into the oval office — this time as President.

1. Signal to voters that they want your candidate

Everyone knows the adage: “The customer is always right”. It usually applies to businesses, but you can also think of politics as a ‘business’ of sorts: you offer voters a service, public service, and voters pay you with, well, their vote (and taxes). So how do you sell a candidate to voters? Remember the scene from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) where Jordan Belfort (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) pulls out a pen and asks people to “sell me this pen”. There are a few op-eds from marketing and sales experts that discuss this ‘pen riddle’, and it generally boils down to two things. First, do not describe the pen to persuade the customer to buy it — people will instinctively come up with counterarguments. Instead, do listen to the customer and use that information to show them how, deep down, they already want the pen. You shouldn’t try to persuade Bernie supporters that it’s in their own self-interest to vote for Biden by pointing out that Trump is even worse and propping up the (meek) concessions your campaign has handed out to progressives. You have to show them that deep down they actually want Biden to win.

When it comes to Bernie voters (like any voter), you have to convince them that the things they worry about in fact give your candidate nightmares, and that the things they want are your candidate’s life mission. You need to remember that your prospective voters are great — no, wait, flawless people, who’s only flaw (if you can even call it that) is: (a) that they’re not reaching their fullest potential yet, but that can easily be done by getting your candidate into office; or (b) that one (or several) of their great attributes will be jeopardized unless your candidate is in office. It’s all about the signal, stupid. You have to signal to voters that your guy (or gal) is their guy (or gal).

In an interview, political scientist Rachel Bitcofer argued that Republicans are better at messaging than Democrats because they first meet the voter where they’re at, and then tailor their message around the voter’s position. On the other hand, she says, Democrats have the antiquated notion that campaigns are about convincing moderates/independents who weigh (or at least listen to) policy proposals. A message tailor-made for Bernie supporters could center on four points:

· Biden will pass universal healthcare: Medicare-for-All was the ultimate goal of Bernie bros because it guaranteed universal coverage and introduced a single-payer system. In contrast, Biden’s healthcare plan expands Obamacare but does not guarantee coverage for everyone. Medicare-for-All is popular with Americans, who are 63% for it, but opposition can go as high as 70% depending on how the question is framed. With some modest changes to his plan, Biden could guarantee universal healthcare, which also 63% of Americans support, and avoid the less-popular trappings of Medicare-for-All such as higher taxes and eliminating private insurance.

· Biden will reduce income-inequality: Since Biden became a senator in 1973, the share of income earned by the top 1% has increased from 11% to 20%, and for the bottom half of Americans it has dropped from 20% to 13%. Moreover, young Americans are bearing the brunt of growing inequality, and addressing this issue would have broad appeal: 41% of Republicans think inequality is too high. But only one of the 35 policy plans on Biden’s campaign website makes even a passing reference to income inequality. Still, many of Biden’s economic proposals do have progressive allure: a $15 minimum wage, strengthening unions, paid sick leave, paid family leave, and (the newest addition) cancelling $750 billion in student loan debt. However, voter haven’t received the signal because the message wasn’t loud and, frankly, ‘flashy’ enough. These proposals have been rolled out in the down-low to appease progressives without rocking the boat when instead they should be shouted from the rooftops, especially for an issue with so much cross-party appeal. You may also want to consider adopting Universal Basic Income (UBI): it addresses income inequality, you can frame it as a proportional reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, and it is very popular with young Americans (not with older ones, though). Moreover, the Trump administration has already delivered $1,200 checks (don’t let Trump outflank your left!) and the poster child for UBI, Andrew Yang, endorsed your candidate, which could be helpful.

· Biden will tackle climate change: Climate change can be a tricky issue because much of the signaling has already happened here. The Green New Deal has emerged as a holy grail for progressives and a raider’s arc for conservatives. First, Biden should highlight the elements that have mass-appeal (and ignore the unpopular ones): According to polls, 7 in 10 Americans want 100% of US power to come from zero-emission sources in 10 years, and 7 in 10 have a positive view on science, which Republicans have an iffy relationship with as the coronavirus pandemic has shown. Second, Biden needs to be more vociferous about climate change. He has already come out somewhat for the Green New Deal, but he needs to show young voters–for whom this is a top concern–that climate change keeps him up at night and that he will put skin in the game.

· Biden will take money out of politics: This is where Biden perhaps has most credibility, given that he has pushed for campaign finance reform for 40 years (albeit to no avail). Plus, Biden’s less-than-stellar fundraising numbers could free him to talk more openly about the corrupting influence of money in politics. This would be a sure-hit with Bernie bros and Obama-Trump voters alike: 9 in 10 Americans want to reduce the influence of big campaign donations.

True, the progressive intelligentsia may not be convinced by the content of your policy proposals and you cannot afford major policy shifts. But don’t worry! You’re not trying to sell Joe Biden to them, you’re selling him to Bernie’s +10 million voters. Remember in The Dark Knight (2008) what the Joker (portrayed by Heath Ledger) says after setting fire to $6 billion: “It’s not about the money, it’s about sending the message”.

2. Focus on the team behind the man

Let’s not mince words. Most Bernie voters simply do not like Joe Biden because he personifies the Democratic establishment they tried to overthrow in 2016 and 2020. What’re you gonna do about it? If you’re instinct is to tell them that Trump is worse, stop! Don’t describe the pen, listen to your customer and show that they want the pen. Instead of reminding progressives that “Trump=bad” (they know), take their focus away from Biden and give them a peek behind the curtains into what the next Democratic administration could look like. Show them the team that will take the reins of government if Biden is elected, and how their progressive agenda would in fact move forward. Bernie bros may be indifferent to Trump and Biden’s battle-of-the-titans clash scheduled for November, but you can still entice them by showing them what — no, wait, who is really at stake in this election.

At the end of the day, when a candidate wins the White House, the party as a whole–with all its factions–enters it as well. Many also-rans have gone on to have prominent roles in administrations and parties. Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Al Gore, John McCain and Mitt Romney all lost presidential primaries at some point. After Howard Dean lost the Democratic nomination as the progressive candidate in 2004, he went on to chair the DNC and oversaw big wins for the party in 2006 and 2008. President Obama gave several important roles to primary opponents: Joe Biden was vice-president, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, and Chris Dodd co-wrote the Dodd-Frank Act, one of Obama’s signature bills. Although President Trump has been less kind to the GOP’s 2016 also-rans, his administration is still a faithful rendition of the party as a whole, and he put former-opponents Ben Carson and Rick Perry in his cabinet.

The idea of Biden forming a ‘shadow cabinet’ has already been proposed by political strategist Bradley Tusk. This could be a good opportunity to show progressive voters that they would like the team that enters the White House in 2021. You need to ask them: Who do you want as treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin or Elizabeth Warren? Who do you want as education secretary, Betsy DeVos or Andrew Yang? Who do you want heading the VA, Trump’s guy or Tulsi Gabbard? Who do you want as HUD secretary, Ben Carson or Julian Castro? Who do you want as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo or Cory Booker? Who do you want heading the EPA, Andrew Wheeler or Jay Inslee? Who do you want as the potential successor to the president, Mike Pence or Stacy Abrams? Who do you want whispering into the ear of the president for the next four years, Kellyanne Conway or Symone Sanders? Who do you want the president to rely on in Congress, the Freedom Caucus or the Squad? Many of these figures have some bona fides with progressives. Use it. Heck, even Bernie Sanders could be elevated through the echelons of the Democratic Party. Sure, his ‘democratic socialist’ label may render him too radioactive for the administration as such, but you can offer him more influence in the less-visible yet arguably more important world of congressional party leadership. Maybe Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus or President pro tempore of the United States Senate. It would be very welcomed by Bernie voters and barely-noticed by the vast majority of Americans.

Alas, most of the progressive intelligentsia may still not come around to your side because of Biden’s establishment baggage and his connections to Wall Street, K street and figures like Larry Summers. But some will. Most importantly, by focusing on team members, you can signal to progressive voters that the people they want in government will be in government as long as Biden wins in November, even if they are indifferent to the names at the top of the ticket.

3. Never EVER shame voters into supporting your candidate

Guilt-tripping a voter into picking your candidate at the ballot box is election poison. By doing so, you’re essentially making it explicit to voters that they face a dilemma: their principles or the lesser of two evils. Even Dr. Jill Biden made the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument herself while pitching her husband’s candidacy. This frames the option to not vote for your candidate as the more integrous one, and who wouldn’t want to feel like they did the right thing if all it took was to vote for a third-party candidate? So when selling your candidate to a voter, your pitch must show that they want to vote for him or her, not that they should vote for him or her, much less because it’s the lesser of two evils.

Vote-shaming has been one of the main sources of contention between the Clinton campaign and Bernie bros. Hillary Clinton has on numerous occasions brought up Bernie Sanders’ refusal to drop out of the 2016 primary sooner as one of the reasons she lost to Donald Trump. Whether this is the case or not is not, progressives have had many responses to this and here are some of them. The Democratic establishment undermined the Sanders campaign in 2016: DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned after leaked emails revealed active coordination with the Clinton campaign, and her interim successor, Donna Brazile, herself resigned from CNN after leaked emails revealed she shared primary debate questions with Clinton’s campaign. There were more Clinton supporters who voted for McCain in 2008 (25%) than Sanders supporters who voted for Trump in 2016 (12%). Clinton supporters didn’t care so much about party unity when she lost to Obama, as they formed a political action committee called PUMA (People United Means Action, though originally coined as “Party Unity, My Ass”) that opposed Obama’s nomination and protested the Democratic Convention. Sanders stomped even more for Clinton, doing 39 rallies for her in 2016, compared to Clinton’s 27 rallies for Obama in 2008. These facts are ingrained into the progressive mythos, so relitigating them will only widen the rift between Bernie voters and Biden.

Instead, the Democratic Party as a whole would benefit from a rapprochement between the progressive and establishment camps. Progressives often bring up the notion of ‘gaslighting’ to describe their experience with the media and the Democratic Party, meaning that they feel manipulated into doubting their own sanity. Faced with this feeling, validation can be far more valuable than concessions. Commendably, Biden has made some very positive strides here, acknowledging that he needs to earn Bernie voters, and having a genuinely warm one-to-one with Sanders himself. But more will have to be done to signal to these voters that they actually want Biden to win. In the meantime, for anyone else who wants to motivate Sanders voters into voting for Biden in November, the best course of action might be to level with them. Admit that they’re right about some things: that if the shoe were on the other foot, perhaps you yourself would be undecided between Sanders and Trump; that it’s true that the DNC has been unfair to progressives; and that there was media bias against Sanders (remember the MSNBC contributor saying that Sanders made her “skin crawl” for no specific reason and with no pushback). Most importantly, though, recognize that it’s not their fault if Biden loses to Trump. Simply acknowledging the validity of their critiques and recognizing that they’re not to blame if Biden loses will do wonders to soften the mood in this conversation. Plus, if you show how their progressive causes will live on in a Biden administration, then perhaps enough Bernie bros will buy your candidate to tip the scales in November. In which case, congratulations again! You bet on the right horse!

Political scientist and DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. Here to share some political observations in these strange strange times.

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