GEORGETOWN, South Carolina—Democrats will sometimes list all of the people and items they would vote for over President Donald Trump in a general election.
An inanimate object, an anonymous bus driver, a fictional character.
But that doesn’t mean some are necessarily happy about the possibility of having to vote for Bernie Sanders in November.
It’s a prospect that can tend to give away a person’s true feelings in grimaces and groans, a reluctant ‘I guess, if I have to’, grasping for words and giving a look like, ‘Let’s hope America doesn’t put me in that position.’ It’s a potential future that makes Debbie Meekins, a 55-year-old supporter of Joe Biden’s have to laugh just moments after enthusiastically watching the former vice president walk into a South Carolina campaign event this week.
“Not good, but I'd vote for him,” Meekins said about her feelings towards a Sanders general election campaign. “(It’s) one of those, I'd vote for Mickey Mouse over Trump.”
“Sadly, it is what it is,” she says. Sanders is as polarizing as Trump, “but in the other direction.”
Ahead of Saturday’s primary, some Democratic voters in South Carolina who are either undecided or support other candidates said they’ll side with the Vermont senator if he does indeed make it to the general election.
For them it’s more out of a necessity to oust the incumbent, in their minds, than because of a growing affection for the 78-year-old democratic socialist turned Democratic frontrunner. And many are not entirely convinced he’ll be able to oust the Republican from the White House if he gets the chance.
Others aren’t so sure they can vote for him at all—or have outright foreclosed that possibility already.
Ben Boyles, a 38-year old supporter of former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg, said that he can’t bring himself to back Sanders—who he called “Trump in a different hat”—if he ends up as the Democratic nominee. “I believe in capitalism,” said Boyles as he waited to enter a Buttigieg rally in the city of Rock Hill on Thursday night.
“I would have to think long and hard about staying true to my party,” said Elaine Greenlief, a 64-year-old Democrat supportive of Biden’s campaign.
Beating Trump has been a key concern for voters this primary season, overtaking more clear-cut issues like health care or the sparring between the moderate and progressive wings of a Democratic Party whose fissures appear to be growing.
Saturday’s South Carolina primary offers Democrats resistant to Sanders a clear opportunity to halt his momentum. A repeat win in New Hampshire and a blowout win in Nevada elevated Sanders to clear frontrunner status. His history in South Carolina is more of a challenge, with a 47-point loss here in the 2016 primary. In the lead-up to this year’s first-in-the-South primary, Sanders has consistently trailed Biden.
The state’s primary is not a must win for Sanders like it is for Biden. The former vice president has made clear he expects a decisive victory—and he likely needs one in order to keep his candidacy going. Sanders and his progressive ideals have remained a point of criticism for Biden at this point in the primary season.
But concerns about Sanders weren’t limited just to Biden events this week. Billionaire Tom Steyer briefly picked on Sanders by name and skewered former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg in the process at an event Thursday morning in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in front of a largely African-American crowd. In Rock Hill, Buttigieg urged a “new generational voice in our party”—prompting an “amen to that” from the audience.
Sanders “always seems angry,” said Kenya Tate, a 46-year-old Steyer supporter. She doesn’t think Sanders would be able to beat Trump in the general election, but she would vote for him in November even though she hopes it doesn't get to that point.
"To me, he's not convincing enough for me to want to vote for him," Tate said. "So I'm not sure if he can convince the rest of America... I mean, I would have no choice because I'm a Democrat."
Sanders’ Democratic rivals are becoming increasingly vocal about the problem the Vermont lawmaker’s approach to politics could cause down-ballot.
Whether it’s giving Republicans an opening to slap a socialist label on down-ballot Democrats in key races or flashpoints like the independent’s recently reiterated praise of Fidel Castro’s literacy program, Democrats have made clear their fears as to what a Sanders nomination could do to the party as a whole.
Buttigieg in particular has been explicit on that front, claiming that Sanders’ nomination would hollow out the Democrats’ 40-seat U.S. House majority and hand control back to the GOP. Jack Schillawski, a 22-year old supporter of Buttigieg’s from North Carolina—whose Super Tuesday primary looms soon after South Carolina’s—said he believes Sanders’ nomination would mean Democrats lose control of the House and fail to take the Senate in November. “If he’s the nominee, I’ll vote for him,” said Schillawski. “I wouldn’t be as enthusiastic in campaigning.”
Sanders has seemed to revel in the attacks, capitalizing on news reports about Bernie panic in the Democratic establishment to raise money and proclaim he’s on the right path. As Buttigieg tried to challenge the senator during Tuesday night’s debate, Sanders launched into a common stump speech line about how helpful his “radical ideas” would be if he were elected president.
“The truth is Pete that the American people support my agenda,” Sanders said. “That is why I am beating Trump in virtually every poll that is done and why I will defeat him.”
Rivals have also emphasized a unity approach that Sanders may have trouble pulling off if he is indeed nominated at the top of the ticket when Democrats meet for their convention in July.
There will be those who don’t warm up to Sanders, said Michael Wukela, the communications director for the Sanders campaign in South Carolina—but he said that’d be the case with anyone that Democrats could nominate.
“This idea that, somehow, Bernie Sanders depresses the Democratic vote is just nonsense,” Wukela told The Daily Beast in the Sanders campaign’s Columbia headquarters. “You see it in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, those swing counties that went for Obama in 2008, 2012, and went for Trump in 2016, he wins those counties.”
And many voters—even those supporting other candidates—expressed outrage at the idea of anyone who opposes Trump having a hard time pulling the lever for whoever the Democratic nominee is. Anyone who doesn’t vote or votes third-party, said Theresa Eaman in Rock Hill, “has basically voted for Trump, and that bothers me.”
An issue that has continued to haunt Sanders’ campaign as he tries expanding his base, however, remains the fallout from his challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Although Sanders eventually backed and campaigned for Clinton in 2016—and has pledged to support whoever the nominee is because of the importance of beating Trump in November—some voters here remained skeptical of his sincerity.
To 71-year-old undecided voter Jackie Tucker, Sanders was "not supportive" of Clinton. Standing outside of a Biden event this week, she listed off her concerns.
Sanders isn’t a Democrat. And she fears history repeating itself in 2020 because in her eyes Sanders didn't do enough to bring his supporters to Clinton's aid in the general election. "He just didn't do what he was supposed to do,” Tucker said.
But Tucker, a lifelong Democratic voter, still pledged to support Sanders in the general election if it comes to that. "To me, anybody would be better than Donald Trump," she said.
This stage of the primary season is when some voters begin to make peace with reality and what’s left in front of them. The candidate they loved and cheered for may already be gone, and the final days before their states’ primaries can present a soul-searching task of reconciling the perfect with the just good enough. Some voters are engaging with the Democratic primary even while they’re fatalistic that it will amount to anything.
“I hate to say this, but I believe Trump is going to win no matter who the Democrats put up,” said Matt, a Buttigieg-supporting teacher from Rock Hill who declined to give his last name.
That narrowing of the 2020 field hasn’t helped sway 43-year-old Connie Johnson, a former Marianne Williamson supporter, to Sanders’ movement. Johnson labeled Sanders “a career politician,” after Steyer’s event in Orangeburg.
Sanders’ age is a concern for her. She wants something new, something fresh. She's not willing to vote against her values, she said, "for the sake of beating Trump.”
If Sanders is the nominee, she said she’ll still vote in the general election. She may just write in a name instead.