Does The 'Bernie-Or-Bust' Movement At The DNC Live Up To The Media Hype?

Jul 27, 2016

The media covering the Democratic convention this week have focused relentlessly on the alleged divide between Bernie Sanders’ devotees and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But is the Bernie-or-Bust narrative as real — or as relevant — as your news feeds might be making it out to be?

VPR's Peter Hirschfeld spoke with All Things Considered host Alex Keefe from Philadelphia, where he's covering the convention, about the reality on the ground.

Why is the media so obsessed with the 'Bernie-or-Bust' movement?

It's no secret that political reporters love to glom onto these narrative stories, and this Bernie-or-Bust thing has been no exception. In fact, VPR has aired stories from Hirschfeld this week chronicling the grievances of Sanders supporters struggling to get on board with Clinton.

Why is this a narrative worth covering?

"I’ll be the first to admit that reporters by-and-large are on the lookout for conflict, and this particular conflict has been so visible at times that we get drawn to it like moths to a flame," says Hirschfeld. "But the Bernie-or-Bust phenomenon is a real thing, and it’s a real thing for Vermont, especially since we have a disproportionate number of pro-Bernie people in our state’s delegation to the national convention."

"To be clear, there are emotions involved in this. But I don't think it's this bright line or this chasm." - Arshad Hassan, Vermont delegate and Sanders supporter

Hirschfeld says several members of the Vermont delegation "were among those who walked off the convention floor in protest Tuesday night, after Hillary Clinton secured the nomination. And it’s worth noting that card-carrying Democrats are using the convention stage, both literal and figurative, to protest their party’s presidential nominee."

"No matter which side of the aisle you’re on, I think everybody can agree that the stakes in the 2016 election are high," Hirschfeld says. "And if it’s a race decided on the margins in the end, as many of them are, then these pro-Bernie, anti-Hillary voters are going to matter. And it seems important to at least explore the reasons behind their disaffection, and the extent to which they can be reconciled before the general election."

Is it as big as the media attention it's received?

"Honestly, that’s a question I’ve been wrestling with since I got here," says Hirschfeld. "And where I fear stories like mine miss the mark is in framing the scale of the phenomenon. There was a Pew survey that came out this week looking precisely at the pro-Bernie Sanders demographic. And it found that 90 percent of people who support Bernie Sanders now plan to vote for Hillary Clinton in November."

A Snapchat video from Tuesday's "Bernie-or-Bust" protest in the shadow of Philadelphia City Hall, across the street from convention center where DNC caucuses and councils are held.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

A VPR poll released Wednesday shows a smaller percentage of Sanders' supporters in Vermont have committed to making the switch. 

Hirschfeld spoke with Vermont delegate Arshad Hassan — a Sanders supporter who’s been in politics for years — who says he will have little trouble voting for Hillary Clinton in the fall.

"I think it sounds exciting to make it sound like there's this big divide and people are really upset," Hassan said. "To be clear, there are emotions involved in this. But I don't think it's this bright line or this chasm."

Hirschfeld adds: "I think in the media a have a tendency to paint in black and white. And this happens to be a complex issue with a lot of nuance.

"There are going to be a number of important policy decisions that are going to be involved with the so-called unification of the Democratic Party. And the Bernie-or-Bust narrative I’m sure obscures the complexity of the real debate that’s going on right now."

How long will the narrative last?

Are we going to be stuck with this narrative for the remainder of the general election campaign, or is this a convention-week phenomenon that will fade away as we move closer to November?

"It's always tough to predict the future," Hirschfeld says.

"But my hunch is that the coming months are going to be much more about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The wounds are still fresh for a lot of Sanders supporters, and their view on the race is still influenced by the sting of defeat. But as the lens widens and the choices between the major party candidates becomes more clear, then maybe the gap between Clinton and Sanders will look a lot less eye-catching then the one between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump."

VPR's coverage of the presidential conventions is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.