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After Trump Victory, Many Bernie Sanders Supporters Say 'I Told You So'

Former Democratic Presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., takes the stage during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Monday, July 25, 2016.
John Locher
Former Democratic Presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., takes the stage during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Monday, July 25, 2016.

As America continues to absorb the results of a truly contentious and historic presidential election, one group of voters may be particularly upset: Bernie Sanders supporters. For months over the course of the campaign, many in Sanders' ranks said he was the only candidate with a sure shot at beating Trump, that he could reach working class voters better than Hillary Clinton could, and that he offered a true progressive agenda that Clinton could not.

But these supporters never got the chance to be proven right — or wrong. So now, some of them vent.

"Schadenfreude," said Philip Werlau, a Bernie Sanders supporter, when asked his feelings about this week's election results. "That is the German word for taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune. ... Because I don't want Trump to be president. But I'm happy that what I perceived as unfair tactics lost."

Werlau, a 26-year-old computer science student from Florida, voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in this week's presidential election, after supporting Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries. After Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, Werlau said there was no chance he'd support Clinton. "I kind of lost hope in the election," he says. And Werlau says his vote for Johnson wasn't a spoiler, because he "wasn't going to vote for Hillary in the first place."

Werlau said he is still angry about what he thinks was unfair treatment of Sanders and his supporters by the Democratic National Committee. He and many others felt the nominating process for the party favored Clinton and that the DNC actively fought to make her the nominee. An email dump from WikiLeaks during the week of the Democratic National Convention this past July, which Sanders supporters say showed proof of the DNC tipping the scales in Clinton's favor, only confirmed those fears for many Sanders supporters.

"It's far behind perception at this point, it's factual that the party leadership definitely put its hands on the scale for Secretary Clinton," said Dallas Fowler, a Sanders delegate turned Clinton voter from Los Angeles. "And I think post-primary not dealing with that effectively as a party drove a number of people [away from Clinton]."

Fowler, like most Sanders supporters, eventually ended up backing Clinton in the general election. The conventional wisdom was that Clinton could get most disaffected Sanders voters back if she moved further to the left after the convention. And she did, most notably with a college affordability plan Clinton announced after clinching the nomination, which borrowed heavily from Sanders' agenda and was critical in securing the Vermont senator's endorsement. But for some Sanders supporters, and maybe enough of them to swing the election, nothing Clinton could do would win them over.

Zach Exley was a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign and the author of the upcoming book, Rules For Revolutionaries. He says Clinton's problems were bigger than policy, or any sense of betrayal from core Sanders supporters. For him, it was about tone.

"Americans are so angry about their incomes going down for the past 40 years, they wanted to see that anger reflected in a leader," said Exley. "And Trump had that and Bernie had that, and Clinton seemed not to know what the rest of us are going through."

Dallas Fowler says that because Sanders proved he could tap into that emotion, he could have won several states Clinton did not. Listing states like Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania, Fowler said, "The polls that were right about this outcome [Trump's win] in May and June of this year, those same polls had Sanders winning by a ten percent margin."

Of course, those polls could not take into account any attack ads that might have been run against Sanders in a general election campaign; during the primaries only a few opposition ads were run against him.

Sanders himself issued a statement soon after Donald Trump's victory, saying, "Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media."

But Sanders also said he would be open to working with the new president, "To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country." But he concluded, "To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him."

The question for Sanders' supporters is what they do next. Winnie Wong, organizer of the online group People for Bernie, told NPR that most of them will take their activism to other causes, and future elections. (Wong swapped votes with a friend in a competitive state: she voted for Jill Stein in Massachusetts on that friend's behalf while the friend, a North Carolina resident, voted for Clinton.)

"I'm not even thinking about Donald Trump at this point, candidly," she said. Instead she's looking forward.

"The 2018 midterm races are winnable," Wong said. "We can win it all in 2018. And I think that's what we have to look forward to. We can't just dig in and think that it's all over, because it isn't."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 11, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly stated that neither Democrats nor Republicans ran opposition ads against Bernie Sanders. In fact, several superPAC ads targeted Sanders.
Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.