Now that Hillary Clinton has enough delegate support to become the presumptive Democratic nominee, many have asked where Bernie Sanders’ supporters will turn—in particular, whether they’ll support the other outsider in the race, Donald Trump. Some polls certainly suggest so: A recent YouGov/The Economist poll finds that 48% of Sanders supporters don’t plan on supporting Clinton in the general election, including 19% who say that they will vote for Trump. Such numbers no doubt fill the hearts of many Republicans with glee, hoping that they can attract enough disaffected Sanders voters to launch Trump into the White House. But come November, many Sanders voters will ultimately side with Clinton.
One can certainly make a case for why Sanders’ supporters would go to Trump: Both are political outsiders who have shaken up the establishment in their respective parties. Both have similar messages on the rigged political and economic system, especially on issues such as trade. Both have harnessed the anger in the 2016 political zeitgeist. From that perspective, Trump’s recent overtures to the Sanders coalition make sense.
But the current polling overstates Trump’s appeal to Sanders supporters. On a whole host of issues, Trump and Sanders take starkly different positions. It’s hard to imagine a Sanders supporter agreeing with Trump’s positions on immigration, the minimum wage, taxes, gun control, or global warming. Even if that Sanders voter appreciated Trump’s opposition to trade, his stances on these others issues would likely be a bitter pill to swallow.
In the 2008 election, many of Clinton’s supporters vowed not to support Obama, calling themselves PUMAs (for party unity my a**). According to a Gallup poll on the eve of the 2008 Democratic Convention, only 47% of Clinton’s primary supporters were sure they would vote for Obama. Yet, after the dust settled, post-election surveys found that the overwhelming majority of them supported Obama, especially if they lived in key battleground states.
Why did Clinton’s primary supporters ultimately decide to back Obama? It comes down to the dynamics of a primary vs. a general election campaign. In the primary, the debate was over the differences between Clinton and Obama. But once Obama won the Democratic nomination, the contest turned to Obama vs. McCain. While there were differences between Clinton and Obama, they were dwarfed by the differences between Obama and McCain. Facing that choice in the general election, those voters decided to pull the lever for Obama.
In the end, 2016 will look similar for many of Sanders’ supporters: Faced with a choice between Clinton and Trump, many will go to Clinton’s side. Right now, at the end of a long and hard-fought primary election, Sanders’ supporters can easily call to mind all of the reasons they dislike Clinton. Indeed, many Sanders supporters’ self-proclaimed support for Trump at this point likely reflects the long Democratic primary, which has highlighted the few areas where Clinton and Sanders disagree (recall that in the Senate, they voted together 93% of the time). After working to defeat Clinton, it seems difficult to turn around now and support her.
But as the party coalesces around Clinton in the weeks and months ahead, Sanders supporters will be reminded of all they have in common with her. Recent endorsements by key Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Obama will help with that process. Sanders supporters will remember all of the places where they agree with Clinton, and equally important, the many areas where they disagree—often vociferously—with Trump.
In particular, Sanders’ more liberal or Democratic supporters will be especially likely to support Clinton in the fall. Or if they do defect, it will likely be to someone like Green Party candidate Jill Stein. These voters will reason that a Clinton presidency is preferable to a Trump one, even if they would most prefer a Sanders presidency. Especially given that Sanders has pledged to work with the Clinton campaign to defeat Trump in November, many such voters will ultimately back Clinton.
But Clinton faces a more uphill climb with other Sanders supporters. While the stereotypical Sanders voter is on the far left, in actuality, a good deal of his support comes from independents and moderates (and the two groups need not be the same). A recent analysis of NBC News polling data shows that many of these voters have a strong antipathy toward Clinton. Winning them over will be harder, as they enter the general election season with negative views of Clinton. But harder need not mean impossible, especially if she can convince them that Trump is temperamentally unsuited to the presidency. Whether she can effectively do that in the coming months will be one of her challenges to winning in November.
Matthew Levendusky is associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Partisan Sort (University of Chicago Press, 2009), How Partisan Media Polarize American (University of Chicago Press, 2013), and the co-author (with James Q. Wilson, John DiIulio, and Meena Bose) of American Government: Institutions and Policies, 15th ed (Cengage Learning, 2016).