The body language was a little stilted and there were scattered squabbles between supporters, but on July 12th Senator Bernie Sanders finally stood in a New Hampshire high school gymnasium and said words that Democratic leaders have been waiting to hear for weeks: “I am endorsing Hillary Clinton for president.”
For die-hard Sanders supporters—the mostly young, ardent left-wingers who call themselves “Bernie or Bust” voters—there were lines in their hero’s speech that reminded them why they dislike and mistrust the former Secretary of State, senator and first lady.
With Mrs Clinton standing at his side, Mr Sanders reminded the crowd that he had won 13m votes, helping him to come first in primaries and caucuses in 22 states—a startling and unexpected success funded by 2.5m small individual donors. He noted that Mrs Clinton would go into the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with a lead of 389 pledged delegates “and a lot more super delegates”—a reference to the party grandees who are free to vote as they wish in the presidential nominating contest and without whom Mrs Clinton could not have secured final victory. There were boos from the crowd at that reminder, that the party establishment has strongly favored Mrs Clinton from the start over Mr Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who sits as an independent senator for Vermont.
Mr Sanders told the crowd that it is no secret that he and Mrs Clinton disagree on a number of issues. He reeled off a list of areas in which his campaign—which he has spent a year pitching as a political revolution, designed to rein in and tax Wall Street banks and greatly increase the scope and size of the federal government in such fields as healthcare and higher education—had influenced the Democratic Party policy platform drafted at a special meeting that ended in Orlando on July 10th. A month after she effectively secured the nomination Mrs Clinton has indeed made some high-profile concessions to Mr Sanders, notably by agreeing to a plan to offer free tuition at public colleges and universities for students from lower-income families.
During the long and often contentious primary contest Mrs Clinton had cited Mr Sanders’s talk of free college as an example of his lack of political realism, noting that his promises were based on the (not very plausible) assumption that governors in Republican states would add large sums to those federal funds he proposed to raise by taxing the financial sector.
But for all that, other words of Mr Sanders mattered a lot more. First, he told his supporters that Mrs Clinton:
“has won the Democratic nominating process and I congratulate her for that. She will be the Democratic nominee for president and I intend to do everything I can to make certain that she will be the next president of the United States.”
That may sound like a technicality, but when devoted Bernie Bros meet online and in person, many seethe with talk of alleged irregularities in this primary or that, to the point that some are happy to call the primary election stolen.
Just as importantly, Mr Sanders at last took his booming indignation at an economy and a political system that he calls “rigged” for the benefit of the richest 1%, and aimed it not at Mrs Clinton but at the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
He accused Mr Trump of showing the “same old Republican contempt for working families” when it comes to the minimum wage, access to healthcare or the cost of medicines. The Vermont senator cast Mr Trump as rejecting science and believing that climate change is a “hoax”, like “most Republicans.” With a nod to recent, racially-charged shootings of black men and of white police officers in cities across the country, Mr Sanders charged Mr Trump with “dividing Americans” in “stressful times” for our country, and of insulting Mexicans, Muslims, women, blacks and veterans.
After each swipe at Mr Trump, Mr Sanders told the crowd that, in contrast, Mrs Clinton “understands” what is at stake. He addressed the possibility of apathy among his supporters—a point that worries the Clinton campaign, as they ponder how few votes they won on college campuses, among other Sanders hotspots. “If you don’t believe this election is important, take a moment to think about the Supreme Court justices that Donald Trump will nominate, and what that means to civil liberties, equal rights and the future of our country,” he said.
That there is work for the Clinton campaign to do is clear. A national poll by the Pew Research, conducted in late June, found voters aged under 30 unusually engaged in the election, with nearly three-quarters saying that they had given it quite a lot of thought—a much higher proportion than in 2012. But only about a quarter of young people said they were satisfied with the available choices for president, compared to 60% who were satisfied in 2012, and 68% in 2008, the year of Obama.
If the Clinton camp has its eyes on Mr Sanders’s young supporters, the Trump campaign has ambitions to pick up a different block of Sanders fans: disgruntled blue-collar workers or ex-workers from rust belt post-industrial states, many of whom thrilled to the Vermont senator’s fierce attacks on global free trade deals. It is striking that Mr Sanders, in his prepared endorsement remarks, made no mention of trade policy at all. That may be because when the—largely non-binding and symbolic—Democratic Party platform was being negotiated in recent weeks, the Sanders campaign lost a tangible battle.
The Trump campaign issued a statement wooing Sanders supporters over trade, via the possibly high-risk route of an attack on Mr Sanders. “Bernie is now officially a part of a rigged system” the statement said, accusing him of “endorsing one of the most pro-war, pro-Wall Street and pro-offshoring candidates in the history of the Democratic Party.”
Mrs Clinton moved past a long-awaited milestone thanks to the endorsement Mr Sanders, in short. But as the election contest enters its final months, the sunlit uplands do not beckon.