Protests at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland were notably smaller and less contentious than expected. By contrast, protests at the subsequent Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia were significantly larger than those in Cleveland, but pretty much in line with what we’ve seen at Democratic conventions in the past two decades. And here are the two things that stood out: First, the overwhelming majority said they were there to champion Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and wouldn’t vote for nominee Hillary Clinton in the fall. And second, they plan to stay involved in Democratic and progressive politics in the years to come.
Here’s how we did our surveys
Over the past week, I worked with students from Temple University and the University of Michigan to survey those protesters. To draw a representative sample, we used the “anchor sampling” approach to surveying crowds developed in my previous research with Fabio Rojas on the antiwar movement.
Surveyors went to all announced rallies and free-speech areas such as Philadelphia City Hall and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. Each surveyor was instructed to look into the crowd and select an “anchor.” This “anchor” was not surveyed because we assume the surveyor picked him or her with a bias for someone nonthreatening. The surveyor then counted five people to the right of the anchor and invited that person to take a survey, and so on, until three surveys were obtained. Then a new anchor was selected and the process was repeated. Surveyors recorded the race/ethnicity and sex/gender of non-respondents so that we could assess non-response biases and calculate survey weights.
No matter the demonstration’s topic, Sanders supporters dominated
We went to demonstrations on many issues, including clean energy, police mistreatment of African Americans, immigration, poverty and peace. Our surveys on the first day of protests, July 24, found that 95 percent of the protesters who said they voted in the 2016 presidential primaries said they voted for Sanders, with only 4 percent voting for Clinton and 1 percent for other candidates. That’s quite a jump from what my collaborators (Seth Masket, Dara Strolovitch and Joanne Miller) and I found at the 2008 Democratic conventions, where protesters had supported then-Sen. Barack Obama (58 percent), Clinton (22 percent), Dennis Kucinich (6 percent), Mitt Romney (4 percent), Ron Paul (3 percent), Ralph Nader (3 percent) and others (4 percent).
Although Clinton won a higher percentage of delegates in 2008 than Sanders did in 2016, her advocates did not take to the streets in large numbers. In fact, we haven’t seen a similar mobilization around a failed candidacy since 1968, when supporters of the presidential nomination of then-Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy (D-Minn.) were among those gathered outside the Democratic convention in Chicago.
The vast majority of protesters said they won’t support Clinton in the fall
Of course, people who protest outside national party conventions are hardly representative of any candidate’s supporters; they’re a small, unusual group of highly motivated activists. But from this group, of those who voted for Sanders in the primary, only 9 percent said they were inclined to vote for Clinton in November. The vast majority (72 percent) said they would write in Sanders or vote for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. Less than 1 percent planned to vote for Trump, about 5 percent were looking at other candidates, and 13 percent were undecided. By contrast, just over half (51 percent) of the 2008 Democratic convention protesters who hadn’t supported Obama in the primary planned to vote for him in the general election.
Sanders supporters felt wronged. More than 86 percent of respondents said that Sanders had been unfairly treated by the Democratic Party, and almost 60 percent agreed that Sanders should not have endorsed Clinton.
These activists aren’t going away. The Democratic Party will contend with them in coming years
There aren’t enough of these activists to make a dent in votes in the fall. Their discontent will probably influence events by how they channel their organizing energy.
Where will that be? Consider that 74 percent strongly agreed that the Sanders campaign had a positive effect on the Democratic Party, while another 16 percent agreed somewhat. These activists feel powerful. They may be frustrated that their candidate lost the nomination battle, but they still see their efforts paying off by, for instance, making the 2016 Democratic Party platform the “most progressive” in the party’s history. Such “small wins” keep people engaged and organized because they think their efforts were valuable.
So it’s no surprise that many Democratic convention protesters say they will remain politically active: 28 percent wanted to serve as a delegate to a convention in the future. Nearly 40 percent said they would be a delegate to a third-party convention. And more than a quarter — 26 percent — said they might run for office themselves.
If Sanders’s supporters are going to try to keep their ex-candidate’s movement alive, two things might help them overcome the problem of keeping up their energy and enthusiasm over time.
First, as a candidate, Sanders spoke of political revolution and organizing in a way that no other candidate ever has.
Second, many of Sanders’s most ardent supporters do not closely identify with the Democratic Party. Of the protesters who voted for Sanders in the primary, only 12 percent described themselves as “strong Democrats.” The overwhelming a majority identified as independents or third-party supporters. As a result, Sanders’s revolution may be less likely to back away from activism for fear of undermining the Democratic Party, as has happened with other recent social movements.
Michael T. Heaney is assistant professor of organizational studies and political science at the University of Michigan and co-author of “Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11.” Find him on Twitter @michaeltheaney.