Despite running a popular and enthusiastic grassroots campaign, Bernie Sanders eventually withdrew from the Democratic primary.
By Week 8 of Winter Quarter, the leadup to California’s March 3 primary saw Library Walk covered in political chalk messages. An artfully lettered “Yang,” in reference to the former candidate Andrew Yang, adorned the path in front of Geisel Library. Messages encouraging students to vote were scribbled every few yards. The campus was getting ready for an election.
I never found a message on Library Walk in support of any candidate besides Yang or Bernie Sanders, and most of these advocated Sanders. A rainbow “Bernie” sat at the entrance of Geisel, welcoming every single student who came to the library. Other pro-Sanders drawings covered Library Walk from end to end. One night on my walk home from Geisel, I passed by a group of students drawing a chalk bird with Sanders’ face on it, above a message asking me to vote for “Birdie” Sanders in the California primary.
Sanders seemed to be a fan favorite on campus. The Facebook group “Tritons for Bernie” has just under 400 members; the Facebook group “Tritons for Biden” doesn’t exist. I have a rainbow Bernie Sanders sticker on my calculator, not because he was my candidate — full disclosure, he wasn’t —, but because no other Democratic campaign had a student organization on campus that passed out stickers!
In exit polling of the California primary conducted by Edison Research, Sanders won 68 percent of voters aged 18 to 24. Elizabeth Warren, his closest competitor for that age group, won only 12 percent, and Joe Biden won just five percent of voters aged 18 to 24. Many claim Sanders was the chosen candidate of young voters in the Democratic party, and the results from the California primary only strengthen that argument. Young voters’ strong support for his campaign certainly set Sanders apart from a Democratic field of candidates that struggled to elicit enthusiasm from young people.
Sanders also stood out from the field because of his liberal policies. Some of his plans, like introducing a wealth tax and establishing Medicare for All, draw a distinction from Biden’s plans, which take a less extreme approach to healthcare, and other issues like immigration. Sanders campaigned on the promise of a “political revolution,” while Biden campaigned on a return to normalcy, a return to the former status quo. The clear cut differences between Sanders and Biden both in policy and tone raise the idea that this primary election was a contest between the passionate promise of progress and change, versus a return to the status quo. In contrast to both of these candidates, President Donald Trump is campaigning on a continuation of his own version of the status quo, including his anti-immigration policies and sweeping tax cuts. But because Trump currently faces no challengers for the Republican nomination, this article focuses on Democratic politics.
And of the Democratic field, Sanders certainly raised the most money, aside from those who were self funded. As of Feb. 29, Sanders raised over $98 million in small dollar donations -—nearly $65 million more than Biden, who raised just over $33 million from small donations. Small dollar donations are campaign contributions of less than $200, and indicate strong grassroots support — which is exactly why the Democratic National Committee used small dollar donations as a qualifier for the 2020 campaign debates. Sanders’s success with grassroots contributions shows that he excites people enough to not only vote for him, but to cut him a check as well.
Sanders’ online supporters are both enthusiastic and plentiful. His main subreddit, r/SandersForPresident, which is run by supporters and has well over 500,000 subscribers, fosters a community where Sanders fans share everything from political opinions to selfies of them voting. On Twitter, many of his followers don red rose emojis, a symbol of Democratic Socialism and Sanders’s governing philosophy, in their bios. Across other platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, Sanders’ fans use humor and memes to promote their candidate on a scale unattained by most other campaigns. Of the other Democratic candidates, only Yang’s #YangGang also has an extensive meme operation. Because memes are well liked by young people, Sanders’ meme operation could help explain his unique popularity with the youth over other candidates.
Some of Sanders’ online fans even garner negative attention for themselves and his campaign by harassing and bullying people opponents online. The term “Bernie Bro” was coined during the 2016 primary, and is now used as a catchall for toxic online behavior coming from sects of Sanders’ online base. During the primary, Bernie Bros drew condemnation from multiple candidates for their behavior, including Biden, Warren, and even Sanders himself.
With all the enthusiasm surrounding Sanders’ campaign, from young people, online supporters, and donors, many outlets, such as the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight, genuinely expected Sanders to win the primary. But despite commanding an early lead, coming in second in Iowa and winning the next two early voting states, New Hampshire and Nevada, Sanders’ path to the nomination is gone. Sanders dropped out of the presidential race last Wednesday, leaving Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee. And Biden curated his success without much excitement from his supporters, online or otherwise; last weekend, an ABC and Washington Post poll with a margin of sampling error of 3.5 percent, found that only 24 percent of Biden’s supporters were “very enthusiastic” to vote for him, and 26 percent of his supporters said they were “not at all” enthusiastic. It is puzzling to see a candidate with decidedly unenthusiastic support best a candidate so defined by enthusiasm. Sanders’ vocal fan base outraised Biden and overshadowed him online, but most democratic voters still went for Biden’s status quo.
“It leaves me pretty somber to know that despite the passion behind his campaign, it wasn’t enough for the majority of the Democratic party.” Shawn Bowser, a Thurgood Marshall College freshman, and a staunch Sanders supporter, said. “Bernie Sanders has been an inspiration […] in my life since 2015.”
“Americans want someone to vote for, not someone to vote against,” Prothit Halder, a Marshall freshman who supported Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primary, said. Halder pointed to Sanders’ popularity among younger folks as proof, arguing that “the status quo is not working, and young people see that loud and clear.” Still, Halder critiqued Bernie Sanders, arguing that democratic politics should not be “defined by a one man savior.”
I won’t speculate as to why exactly Biden beat out Sanders. Many people much smarter than I am are trying to answer that question. But the disconnect between passion and political success is disheartening news for progressive activism. Generation Z has an evident connection to activism — just look at Greta Thunberg’s climate activism, or the March For Our Lives movement against gun violence. But these movements have so far failed to generate comprehensive legislative change.
Young people’s push for change comes out of necessity, because our lives, more than others, will be affected by the decisions made today. Liberal teens and young adults are generally passionate about issues like climate change, gun control, and reproductive rights because of the direct impact they have on our lives. Young people’s enthusiastic activism, in the form of rallies, marches, walkouts, and the like, represents the extent of power available to a generation not yet eligible to lead in an official capacity. I’m inspired by Gen Z’s commitment to improving the world, but I wonder, how will our generation respond when presidential politics show that bold enthusiasm and grassroots support has twice failed to match up against the appeal of the status quo?
Art by Anthony Tran for The UCSD Guardian.