Elections

Sanders leaders on campus turning their backs on Clinton campaign

Hillary Clinton appears with Bernie Sanders at a rally in July in Portsmouth, N.H.
Hillary Clinton appears with Bernie Sanders at a rally in July in Portsmouth, N.H. Washington Post

Ben Packer notices the difference on his New Hampshire campus. Seven weeks from the election, the Dartmouth senior sees few Hillary Clinton signs hanging from dorm room windows and only the occasional Clinton bumper sticker plastered on a laptop.

A year ago, Packer was helping to lead a Bernie Sanders group at Dartmouth, part of a cadre of campus liberals who dedicated their time and effort to get a socialist senator elected on the Democratic ticket.

Now activists such Packer may well vote for Clinton in November. But they are not doing door-to-door and other campaign work for her as they did for him, taking their organizational strength elsewhere even as Clinton pleads for support on college campuses.

“The Bernie shirts haven’t gone away, and neither have the yard signs,” Packer said.

Liberals who would be “taking internships or doing some other kind of work and form the next generation of party members are not doing so,” Packer said. “Especially because the primary exposed the underbelly of the party.”

In battleground and solidly Democratic states, Sanders activists on college campuses are working on issue-based campaigns or for local candidates. They have not translated their organizational efforts to the Clinton campaign.

“People are excited to talk about how much they hate Trump, but there’s not a huge excitement about Hillary,” said Elizabeth Siyuan Lee, a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont and founder of the national College Students for Bernie organization. “There is a very small Middlebury for Hillary group but it’s not generating very much excitement.”

Lee’s group, which comprises nearly 200 chapters at colleges across the country, has largely transferred its organizational capacity and contacts to two liberal groups: Young Progressives Demanding Action and Young Democratic Socialists.

“I know some people have jumped into the official Clinton campaign but no one has transferred their (Sanders) group into a Clinton campaign group,” Lee said of the College Students for Bernie chapters across the country.

Lee said Clinton relied much less on college students for grass-roots support than Sanders did, so a lack of excitement might not translate to lost votes, especially in solidly blue states.

But Niko House, a recent University of North Carolina graduate and founder of North Carolina College Students for Bernie Sanders, said Clinton would struggle to gain traction in certain parts of battleground states without committed college-age activists.

“What people don’t understand is that the the black vote was huge for the Obama campaign,” House said. “The execution by the major colleges in North Carolina played a massive role. . . . He (Obama) went on to hire a lot of those people.”

Clinton does not have the same organizational strength among motivated young liberals, House said.

House, who led a group of about 500 students at eight colleges across North Carolina, is one of the few Sanders organizers who aren’t voting for Clinton. He supports Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

“Many of the young Dems they know, they are going to be politicians one day,” House said of Clinton supporters on campus. “They are helping her because they believe it will advance their career.”

In Maine, former Sanders organizers are working for congressional campaigns or ballot initiatives, shying away from the Clinton apparatus. The traditionally blue state is now in play due to Donald Trump’s strong numbers with white male voters, a significant portion of the electorate in the nation’s least-diverse state.

But the area surrounding Bates College in western Maine is in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, a potential game-changing prize for Trump since the state splits its electoral votes. Trump leads in the district by 10 points, according to recent polls.

“This area is the only one in Maine that’s strongly for Trump,” former Sanders organizer and Bates senior Zoe Moss said. “But right now we haven’t done too much for Hillary.”

Moss said that if students from the mostly liberal campus didn’t get out into the more conservative community, it could have an impact in November.

In solidly Democratic Massachusetts, Northeastern University junior Will Smith is sitting out the next seven weeks after organizing a Sanders group on campus last fall.

“I’m kind of busy right now,” Smith said, adding that most Sanders supporters on campus have gravitated toward down-ballot and local races in the Boston area, where socialist candidates are competitive.

In a blue state, Smith said, liberal activists can “forget the presidency.”

Yet House, who said he had no animosity toward Clinton supporters on campus, is willing to forget the presidency in North Carolina and focus his attention on issues like ending mass incarceration and opposing free trade – even if it hands the election to Trump.

“I would rather have an incompetent moron as president than someone who knows how to make the political system work for them at any cost, by any means,” House said.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

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