By Larry Sandler

Despite Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden, Wisconsin Sanders backers are divided on whether to support the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Sanders suspended his campaign April 8, the day after the Wisconsin primary. He endorsed Biden on April 14, the day results were released for the pandemic-plagued balloting, in which Biden swept every county for a 63 percent-32 percent victory. Sanders won the state in 2016.

Throughout the campaign, some Sanders backers harshly denounced Biden and other candidates. Their ferocious loyalty raised questions about whether they would close ranks if Sanders didn’t win the Democratic nomination to face President Trump in November. 

While that’s a nationwide concern, it’s particularly significant in closely divided Wisconsin, whose Electoral College votes helped decide the 2016 election and could be even more important in 2020.

“Unless the situation changes, we’re still looking at a very close race, and every vote counts,” says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll.

Marquette polls of Democratic primary voters — including independents — from January through March found 20 percent of Sanders supporters would refuse to vote for Biden, almost identical to the 18 percent of Biden supporters who would refuse to vote for Sanders, Franklin says. Among self-identified Democrats, only 9 percent of either candidate’s supporters would refuse to vote for the other, he says.

Sanders has told his backers in interviews that  “it’s irresponsible” to sit out the election “and allow the most dangerous president in modern American history to get re-elected.” Wisconsin State Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, expects Sanders’ support to be crucial in rallying his supporters to Biden’s side. U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Dane County Democrat who led Sanders’ state campaign, also has endorsed Biden.

Chance Zombor isn’t convinced. Zombor, a Milwaukee union representative, says he’s “totally undecided” about how to vote in November. 

“I don’t like Joe Biden,” says Zombor, 41. “I never did. … Everything we don’t like about Trump is also true of Joe Biden.” 

He and other Sanders supporters interviewed say they were drawn to Sanders’ positions on workers’ rights, health care, free college, student debt, climate change and immigration. They criticize Biden’s opposition to Medicare for All and past record on race relations and trade.

Ahmed Quereshi, by contrast, is certain he’ll vote for Biden.

“The choice between Trump and Biden is practically no choice at all,” says Quereshi, a leader in the Milwaukee-area Muslim community and the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance. “Trump has built his 2020 campaign upon hate and fear of Muslims, fanning Islamophobia.”

Sanders won the alliance’s endorsement with positions that matched traditional Islamic beliefs that health care is a human right and that the environment must be protected. Muslims also appreciated his “more even-handed” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says Quereshi, 61, a New Berlin attorney. And they were concerned about Biden aide Amit Jani’s support of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist whose government represses Muslims, Quereshi says. 

Still, Muslims’ “hostility to President Trump” means “a protest vote is much less likely” than in 2016, when some voted for Green or Libertarian candidates while assuming the Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would win anyway, Quereshi says. 

Lauryn Cross is leaning toward a protest vote. Cross, a UW-Milwaukee sophomore active in the Youth Climate Action Team, says she will probably write in Sanders in November.

“It’s a lose-lose situation,” Cross, 19, says of the choice between Biden and Trump. She criticized Biden’s record on school busing, saying that for African-Americans like herself, “We’ve always had to settle for the candidate least crappy to people of color.”

“There’s a lot of pressure to choose the best of two evils,” adds Cross, of Milwaukee. “‘Vote Blue No Matter Who‘ doesn’t necessarily solve the issues we’re trying to address.”

David Wright, another black Milwaukee resident, is reluctantly leaning toward voting for Biden. So is Peter German, a gay UW-Madison freshman from West Bend.

“I don’t want to vote for him, (but) I feel like maybe it’s a responsibility,” Wright says of Biden. 

Both Wright, 31, a child-care professional, and German, 19, the manager of Madison Democrat Aisha Moe’s state Senate campaign, disparage Biden’s pledge to work with Republicans. Wright calls bipartisanship “a dated idea” and fears electing Biden means “four to eight more years that we have to wait for a progressive agenda.” 

Others say they would be more likely to vote for Biden if he agrees to back Sanders’ positions. Amy Thomas, 42, a nonprofit staffer from Glendale, wants Biden to support Medicare for All. Andre Walton, 25, a black telecommunications employee in Sheboygan, wants a less warlike foreign policy. And Laura Valderrama, 31, a Colombian-American graduate student and newly elected Shorewood Hills village trustee, advocates stronger action on climate change.

But Zombor questions whether such policy shifts would be sincere, adding, “I don’t want to be lied to by Joe Biden.”

“Of course I’m deeply terrified of another Trump win,” says Valderrama, active in the Dane County Democratic Party. “I’m also terrified of the presumptive (Democratic) nominee being able to get away with” policies supporting war, fracking or unjust treatment of immigrants, the poor and the working class.

Zombor adds, “I’m not sure eight years of Biden would do less harm than four more years of Trump.”

History suggests some of these feelings may change by November, Franklin says. 

Before the 2016 primary, Sanders supporters told pollsters they would be more likely to vote for third-party candidates if Clinton was the Democratic nominee. That fall, third-party candidates won the most support since 2000 in Wisconsin: more than 106,000 votes for Libertarian Gary Johnson; and more than 31,000 for the Green Party’s Jill Stein. Those numbers compared with Trump’s margin of about 23,000 votes over Clinton, handing the state to Republicans for the first time since 1984. And like former Vice President Al Gore in 2000, Clinton won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College.

Far fewer voters supported third parties in 2004, Franklin noted. In Wisconsin, Green-turned-independent Ralph Nader dropped from more than 94,000 votes in 2000 to just over 16,000 in 2004, while Libertarian and Green candidates took slightly more than 9,000 votes combined in 2004, about half the combined total of more than 18,000 for the Reform Party’s Pat Buchanan and Libertarian Harry Oliver in 2000.

Now that voters have seen the “dramatic policy differences” between Trump and a possible Clinton presidency, just as they saw the differences between President George W. Bush and a possible Gore presidency, Franklin says, 2020 could bring a similar drop in third-party support. 

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