WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton has tagged Donald Trump as “divisive” and “unpredictable.” But those words could just as easily describe the state of the Democratic race these days.
A Nevada state party convention in Las Vegas Saturday devolved into chair-throwing, shouting, and death threats lobbed at a top party official. The Nevada Democratic Party hit back with accusations that disruptive Bernie Sanders supporters have a penchant for “actual violence” and blamed the Sanders campaign for letting the event get out of hand. On Twitter and other social media sites, vitriol from supporters on both sides ratcheted higher, and many Sanders backers say they will shun Clinton come November.
Every presidential primary creates divisions, but the hostility among Democrats in 2016 sounds like combatants digging in for battle rather than contemplating how to join forces to defeat their common enemy.
Sanders forces are increasingly bitter that the Vermont senator is still winning races but can’t catch up to Clinton, who has an advantage among party leaders and “superdelegates.” Clinton backers, meanwhile, are growing impatient with Sanders’ insistence on staying in the race despite the long odds against him. The conflict has some Democratic insiders worried that their party won’t be able to unite behind Clinton.
Sanders supporters are embracing social media hashtags such as #BernieOrBust and #DropOutHillary. Many say they will write in Sanders on their ballots in November, vote for a third-party candidate, or abstain from voting altogether. Trump gleefully is stoking the anger, repeatedly saying that Sanders is getting a raw deal from a “rigged” Democratic nominating process.
At least some Sanders backers say they’d prefer the former reality TV star to the former secretary of state.
“I definitely will vote for Trump,” said George Massey, a Sanders supporter from New Brunswick, N.J. “I get that Trump is a blowhard, I understand that he just says whatever comes to mind that day, and you can’t believe everything that he says. But Hillary has proven that she can’t be trusted. Trump is a roll of the dice. I would prefer to roll the dice.”
“It saddens me. It really, deeply saddens me,” said Patty Maher of Ypsilanti, Mich., a lifelong Democrat from a family of lifelong Democrats who has always voted for her party’s nominee. But this year, if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, Maher will write in Sanders’ name. “I’m just done with the Clintons completely.”
The conventional wisdom inside the Beltway is that, in the end, the 2016 race will play out like the one in 2008. That contest, too, was a bitter, bruising primary fight, and Clinton stayed in until the very end. So-called “PUMAs” — for “party unity, my ass” — vowed they’d never vote for her rival Barack Obama. But in the end, the New York Democrat encouraged her followers to back Obama – and for the most part, they did.
But there are signs that the rift that’s developed in this topsy-turvy campaign may be deeper than 2008. A March Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed one-third of Sanders voters couldn’t see themselves getting behind Clinton. Exit polls from the West Virginia primary earlier this month indicated close to half of Sanders supporters in that state would vote for Trump in a general election matchup with Clinton.
Diehard Sanders supporters are drawing up plans to mobilize in the streets of Philadelphia, where Democrats will hold their nominating convention this summer. Currently, five of the nine groups that have filed for protest permits during the convention are pro-Sanders organizations, according to city records sent to the Globe, carrying titles such as “March on the DNC 2016” and “March for Bernie.”
“The only way that Sanders supporters are going to get in line is with the active encouragement of Senator Sanders and his top staff, and to date I haven’t seen that,” said Jim Manley, a consultant and former spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the state’s most powerful politician and Senate minority leader.
Sanders did little Tuesday to comfort party leaders looking for an easy turn toward unity. His response to the Nevada brouhaha carried a defiant tone. He critiqued the Democratic establishment broadly and the Nevada state party’s handling of the convention more specifically. “The Democratic Party has a choice. It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change . . . or the party can choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big-money campaign contributions, and be a party with limited participation and limited energy,” Sanders said.
Turning to the criticisms directed at his campaign, including claims by the Nevada Democratic Party that Sanders supporters have a penchant for violence, Sanders retorted: “That is nonsense,” adding that “[i]t goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals.”
In interviews, Sanders supporters listed several reasons why they can’t bring themselves to get behind Clinton: her past support of trade deals they feel have decimated the working and middle class, her hawkish foreign policy positions, her use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state, and the hundreds of millions in corporate money she has taken as a candidate.
Many Democrats remain hopeful that the healing will begin as soon as Sanders bows out of the race. Sanders has said he will support Clinton if she is the nominee.
”People right now, they’re very intense and passionate about their commitments. Once the dust settles a bit, they’re going to start thinking about Donald Trump as president, and I think that’s going to be a very powerful push toward voting for Hillary,” said Col Owens, a Democratic Party official in Kenton County, Ky., and a Clinton supporter.
These optimistic Democrats also point to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is widely expected to endorse Clinton as soon as Sanders concedes. She would play a pivotal role shepherding Sanders voters, who share her progressive views, to the Clinton fold.
And the cold hard math of the matter is Clinton has won more states — clocking victories in 23 to the 19 Sanders has won before Tuesday’s votes. Overall, Clinton has earned more than 12.5 million votes versus less than 9.5 million for Sanders, according to a tally by Real Clear Politics. Some polling supports the Democratic talking point that Trump will help unite Democrats as well: A CNN poll earlier this month found that Sanders supporters favored Clinton over Trump 86-to-10.
“I’ve been saying for awhile that Bernie is the first presidential candidate that I actually felt wasn’t the lesser of two evils since I’ve been voting,” said Patrick Flanary of Louisville, Ky., who voted for Sanders in Tuesday’s primary. “Nonetheless, I do feel that if in a general election it’s Trump versus Hillary, I will definitely vote for Hillary because I think Trump doesn’t stand for anything I stand for.”Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.