SALT LAKE CITY — News reports about Democratic leaders panicked about the prospect of Sen. Bernie Sanders winning the party’s presidential nomination don’t sit well with Robin Biro.

The party’s former political director vividly remembers the 2016 convention debacle, when Sanders’ supporters learned leaders plotted and succeeded to upend their candidate’s nomination. Instead of shifting their support to Hillary Clinton, they protested and some channeled their anger by voting for the GOP nominee. 

“We lost a number of them to Trump because they were so desperate for any kind of change and if Bernie Sanders wasn’t going to be the one to blow up the system then some thought that Donald Trump could be the one,” Biro recalled.

Party leaders have no one to blame but themselves when an unconventional candidate like Sanders, or Trump in 2016 for Republicans, ascends against their wishes, says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

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“In a system where voters are the ultimate decision-makers, party leaders have ultimately very little ability to control voters,” he says. “Most people who are largely active in party politics don’t want radical change. The people who are insiders like it the way things are. So, the biggest cause of what has happened in both parties is the inability of the party elite to see that the playing field has changed dramatically and that they need to shift in order to stay in front.”

The populist phenomenon that swept Trump into office four years ago has also shaken up political systems in the United Kingdom, Europe and other democracies in the developed world. And it will continue until voters feel their voices are heard by party elites, according to Olsen, who studies how populist challenges upend the political order.

In the case of the Democratic Party, Olsen said there have always been fringe candidates  that leaders have been able to sideline in the past, but since 2008 more people experiencing the burdens of income inequality, climate change, rising health care costs and crippling student debt have breathed new life into Sanders’ and to some degree Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposed solutions to those issues.

“If this really is a disaster in the making, then tinkering around the edges doesn’t make any sense,” Olsen said. “You can’t embrace climate change alarmism then turn around and say, ‘We’ll do something mild that will deal with the problem over time.’ That solution doesn’t match the definition of the problem and that gives rhetorical power to people like Bernie Sanders.”

The Vermont senator’s second-place finish Saturday in South Carolina behind moderate Joe Biden gave a momentary respite to anxious establishment Democrats who feared that the self-described democratic socialist would finish February with four consecutive top finishes.

Sanders leads in several polls going into Super Tuesday, including a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics survey that has him capturing 28% of the vote ahead of a second-place logjam of Mike Bloomberg (19%), Pete Buttigieg (18%) and Warren (15%).

Hoping to secure Utah’s 29 pledged delegates, Sanders’ wife, Jane, visited with constituents, including a Saturday fireside with Latter-day Saint Democrats, on Friday and Saturday, and her front-runner husband will appear at a rally on Monday. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who polled at 4% in the Deseret News survey, will also be speaking to supporters Monday at The Depot in Salt Lake City.

Channeling anger, energy

Following the 2016 convention meltdown, Biro went to work trying to redirect the energy and anger of Sanders’ supporters toward registering voters, enlisting candidates or even running themselves to promote and implement solutions to the causes they were committed to. 

“We also had to manage expectations and explain to them that these great ideas have to get through the House and the Senate,” Biro said. “You’ve got to build toward them and start getting people in place that would go along with, say, for example, the Green New Deal and student debt forgiveness.”

Biro, who stepped down from the party post last year and is now a Democratic strategist, said the party lost some Sanders supporters who opted for anarchy in the Antifa movement rather than the slow moving processes of grassroots recruiting and legislating changes.

But the party also held onto others whose efforts could be seen in the 2018 midterm elections that saw a growing progressive caucus in the House change the conversation within the party on climate change with the Green New Deal.

Not all of Sanders’ supporters, however, were angry novices to the political process. 

Take Jodi Clemens, a Sanders regional field organizer who has spent the past month helping Utah volunteers pull off events before Tuesday’s primary.

Back in 2015, Clemens told her husband she would go to a Bernie Sanders rally in Mount Vernon, Iowa, under a few conditions: she would sit in the back of the room, wear her earrings embossed with Hillary Clinton’s logo and not give out her email address.

The reluctant then-34-year-old financial adviser who had voted Democrat since she was old enough to cast a ballot felt a personal connection with Sanders’ message that she hadn’t sensed with others.

“The first time I heard Bernie speak, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, he’s talking about all of these issues that I’m seeing in people’s lives,’ like deciding whether to pay your health insurance premium or your mortgage,” Clemens recalled. “I think where his message resonates is that, you know, none of us are going to be a good place until we can all take care of each other.”

A new political divide

To be sure, all of the Democratic candidates empathize with the issues that Sanders and his supporters have brought to the table, although they dramatically differ on the approach. But, party leaders still have problems with Sanders as their standard-bearer.

His primary opponents point out his identity as a socialist has enabled the GOP to brand the entire Democratic Party as promoting a dangerous socialist agenda. And some of the resistance stems from Sanders’ refusal to formally join the party.

Biro and Olsen agree that could have been easily addressed by changing party bylaws to require presidential candidates to register as a Democrat. But that didn’t happen until after Sanders declared he was running for president in 2020 as a Democrat, in name only.

While Sanders needs the party structure to mount a viable national campaign, he made a commitment dating back to the 1980s that he would remain fiercely independent and has always ran as an independent since he first ran for Congress in 1990. And he hasn’t shied away from accusing both political parties of abandoning rank-and-file voters for the support of big money donors.

As of Friday, The New York Times showed Sanders not only leading among pledged delegates but in individual contributions as well, with $121 million from a broad base of donors. Buttigieg is a distant second with $82 million and Warren with $81.5 million.

The political press the past week has been filled with news reports and opinion pieces on what the party can do to slow Sanders’ momentum and thwart the increasing likelihood of him winning the nomination at the Democratic Party convention in July.

They voice concerns that a Sanders nomination will turn away a broad swath of moderate Democratic voters, which will hurt the prospects of the party keeping the majority in the House or gaining seats in the Senate.

But there are a few others calling for the party to embrace Sanders’ success and run with it to energize what appears to be a larger base of youthful voters. And maybe capture voters dissatisfied with President Trump.

“The best way for Democrats to defeat Trump’s fake populism is with the real thing, coupled with an agenda of systemic reform. This is what Sanders offers. For that reason, he has the best chance of generating the energy and enthusiasm needed to regain the White House,” wrote former Obama Labor Secretary Robert Reich in the Washington Post.

He argues that a shrinking of the middle class has shifted American politics from a left versus right to an establishment versus anti-establishment divide. And until mainstream Democrats realize that they will become increasingly irrelevant to voters, particularly younger ones that polls show could turn out in higher numbers than ever before.

Aidan Carrier, a 20-year-old Salt Lake Community College student whose first choice is Sanders, would agree. He dismisses Democratic Party elites contemplating scuttling Sanders’ candidacy as “scared, corrupt remnants of a political system and ideology that doesn’t work for younger voters in the modern age.”

That’s why Carrier doesn’t have a problem if Sanders doesn’t pledge allegiance to today’s Democratic Party or with the socialist label Sanders proudly bears. Carrier sees socialism not as a threat but as a tool to bring fairness into America’s market system.

But like Clemens, Sanders’ message also appeals to Carrier on a deeper, personal level than policy talking points or a purely partisan objectives to retake the White House and control Congress.

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“Sen. Sanders, and to a great degree Sen. Warren as well, are the only candidates that I’m convinced actually see us as people,” Carrier said. “I don’t know if I’m convinced that the other candidates see us as anything more than a number to be swayed to increase their own political power.”

Many Trump supporters say the president made a personal connection with them, as well, and he hopes to do it again in his campaign for a second term. He can also say he delivered on his promises of a tax cut, low unemployment, immigration restrictions and appointing conservative judges to the federal bench.

The earnest motives of Sanders’ base isn’t lost on Democratic Party leaders who are struggling to avoid the convention debacle of 2016, Biro said. He said if polls up to 75% of 18- to 23-year-olds saying they will vote are accurate, then the “down ballot” damage of a Sanders nomination that Buttigieg predicts shouldn’t occur.

“That is why you hear House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying this week and that they will coalesce around whoever the nominee is,” Biro said. “Because there’s been a lot of speculation about a contested convention.”

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