Can Biden Court Bernie Supporters — And Should He?

Former Vice President Joe Biden has made some effort to woo Bernie Sanders’ very ardent supporters by tossing a few progressive policy bones their way. But will the payoff — picking up enough Sanders voters to beat President Donald Trump — be worth the potential cost of losing more moderate voters?

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, embraces Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted in February by ABC News, Apple News and WMUR-TV at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

(CN) — Joe Biden is in a pickle. 

The presumptive Democratic nominee has vanquished his most formidable opponent in Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, meaning he will be the man to take on President Donald Trump in the race for the White House in November. 

But how he has emerged from the Democratic primary will say as much if not more about whether he will capture the Oval Office than how he will fare in a head-to-head matchup with Trump. 

Specifically, questions linger about the degree to which Biden is capable of wooing many of Sanders’ more devoted fans, or whether he even should. 

“Biden is stuck in a real dilemma — if he moves left, he loses moderate voters, mostly independents, who voted for Trump while holding their noses,” said John Johannes, a political science professor at Villanova University. “If he stays in the center, he almost certainly loses some portion of the diehard Sanders fans, while the number of centrists and moderate liberals he picks up remains unclear.”

Hillary Clinton went the latter route in 2016, attempting to appeal to centrists who may have historically voted Republican but were turned off by Trump’s disposition or lack of qualifications. 

It didn’t work. 

However, Meena Bose, a political science professor at Hofstra University, points out that Hillary not only tacked away from the left in her campaign but only thinly disguised her contempt for Sanders and his movement. Biden, however, has made more of a concerted effort to court Sanders and his followers. 

“Biden is not only better at reaching across the aisle, but he is also better able to forge alliances within his own party,” Bose said. 

Indeed, rather than barely concealed contempt, Biden praised Sanders and his supporters even before Bernie announced he was suspending his campaign. 

“Senator Sanders and his supporters have changed the dialogue in America,” Biden said in early April. “Issues which had been given little attention — or little hope of ever passing — are now at the center of the political debate.”

But not everyone on Sanders’ side is keen to embrace Biden, causing consternation inside the Democratic Party apparatus that is laser-focused on beating Trump. 

“Right now, I’m leaning toward not voting for Joe Biden, but there’s a lot of time between now and November,” said Alex Pellitteri, 19, a founding member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at Hunter College in New York.

Pellitteri is representative of a contingent of younger Sanders supporters who remain lukewarm on Biden, who many see as out of touch and less than passionate about many progressive initiatives like Medicare for All, student loan forgiveness, free higher education and a wealth tax. 

“I don’t think simply running against Donald Trump makes you a progressive,” Pellitteri said. “You have to have that record.”

The Democratic Socialists of America, which has repeatedly endorsed Bernie Sanders, said in early April it would not endorse Biden. The party, which has grown larger as Sanders has done much to disseminate messages about income inequality and the plight of the American working class, endorsed Barack Obama both times he ran for president. 

But those associated with Sanders seem reluctant to approve of Obama’s former running mate. “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Joe Biden absolutely does not believe health care is a right,” said Briahna Joy Gray, former press secretary for Bernie Sanders on Saturday. “Where is the right to health care for the 10 million people left uninsured, by design, under his plan?”

Gray represents the left wing’s lingering suspicion of Biden and his reluctance to embrace some of Sanders’ policies. She draws support on social media from Sanders’ supporters while irking the portion of the Democratic Party that says the focus must be forward and on Trump. 

The Biden campaign has indeed assimilated some of the policy prescriptions forwarded by the Sanders camp, including a student debt cancellation plan and free public college. The moves seem tailored to appeal to the college-aged voters who lean toward Sanders, but Johannes is skeptical such proposals will carry much weight. 

“A lot of the diehard Bernie fans are focused on the emotional connections they had with him — Bernie as the renegade outsider — as much as, or more than, on policy issue agreement,” Johannes said. 

Kat Belzer, a delegate for Bernie Sanders, said much of the Sanders-Biden angst is a media narrative. 

“For five years it’s the same eternal question, when in actuality all of the polling shows that our supporters voted for the Democratic candidate at higher rates than the supporters of any other candidates,” she said. 

The avid Sanders supporter said many of her colleagues feel a keen sense of disappointment over Sanders’ decision to bow out of the race, but it will not stop them from trying to unseat Trump in November. 

“In the primary you vote your conscience, and in the general election you vote for your country,” Belzer said, adding progressives will be more likely to pressure Biden into adopting their views on the economy, taxation, health care and climate than Trump. 

“Sometimes you don’t get to vote your values, you just vote for someone you can negotiate with,” she said. 

Bose, the Hofstra University professor, also sees more Sanders supporters coming into the fold as the election progresses and the intensity of the primary fight and the sting of defeat fades. 

“Differences can be papered over,” she said. “Given the circumstances and the stakes — with an international pandemic crisis — I think time from now to the election may make a difference for Sanders’ supporters to vote for the party in November.”

In the meantime, Biden must find a balance between courting voters from the progressive wing and hewing close to the preferences of the moderate wing voters who handed him the nomination, according to Johannes. 

“In the six or seven swing states, it won’t take a large number of voters to make a difference,” Johannes said. “But in this case, he faces losing voter support by going in either direction — toward the left or holding in the center.”

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