CHICAGO — It was an optimistic slogan — #StillSanders — though it was difficult to agree on what it meant. The people who scrawled that on signs near the end of the People’s Summit eventually led a very small march to the balcony of McCormick Place’s lakeside convention hall. Eventually, 23 people found a table, talking about how to win the Democratic presidential nomination for Bernie Sanders despite his stubbornly large deficit of delegates.
“I came here from Worcester, Massachusetts, with a message,” said Christopher Horton, wearing a tight gray T-shirt with the campaign’s logo. “We have to demand that Bernie be given the nomination he has won fair and square in the polls.”
Horton did not need to explain himself. Among the hardiest of Sanders supporters — perhaps 10 percent of them, according to polling that asks whether they can ever support Hillary Clinton — there are several theories for how the nomination was stolen. While the candidate has told his supporters to focus on electing progressives to local office, and while thousands have already signed up, there remains a rump of “Bernie or Bust” sentiment aimed at winning in Philadelphia.
One theory goes that the Democratic National Committee slanted the primaries for her. (Even some Hillary voters struggle to debate that.) Another is that Clinton won despite an email scandal that should have forced her from the race, and still might, if what the Berniephile blogger H.A. Goodman calls “the FBI primary” goes the right way.
A less-popular theory was that Sanders really did win the nomination. “The polls” referred to by Horton were actually exit polls, and there are Sanders voters who believe that they revealed large, uncounted votes for him, stolen by chicanery that the media never reported on.
Some on the left have debunked this. Joshua Holland, a progressive writer for the Nation and Raw Story, has published several guides to how exit polling works, and how it did not release then conceal evidence of a Sanders win. Horton’s theory did not grip the #StillSanders group, but as the rest of its members introduced themselves, they vented about how the People’s Summit kept referring to Sanders in the past tense.
“This topic, of how he can still win, was never brought up,” Tayyad Siddiqui said.
After 20 minutes, and before any real work could get done, the group was sabotaged. One organizer from the People’s Summit joined the table and informed everyone that by sitting on the balcony, they were missing important state organizing sessions. A few people peeled off. Then another organizer jumped in, asking whether anyone wanted to join a strategy session for the Philadelphia convention.
In a cacophony of voices and counter-planning, the group split up. “There’s a lack of mobilization, not a lack of will,” said Beth Hartung, heading inside the convention center. Laura Sebransky, an elected Sanders delegate from suburban Chicago, headed toward the Philadelphia sessions, trailed by reporters, and explaining just how disempowering it had been to hear Sanders’s campaign described in the past tense all weekend.
“It pisses me off,” Sebransky said. “All I’m getting told is: Oh, it’s not gonna happen. But what if we find out something before the convention, something so bad that she should not be the nominee? We should be in the position to demand that she’s out, and that Bernie is in, because they will try to insert Joe Biden.”
Sebransky found the Philadelphia planning room, where attendees were ushered into a tight circle. Here, at last, was a space to discuss the possibility of winning the nomination. “We feel like we’re being herded, and we don’t like it,” said Janice Thomasson, an elected delegate from Kentucky.
The problem that quickly emerged was that some of the 13 people in this smaller group did not want to focus on whether Sanders could still win. The smarter play seemed to be maximizing his clout. Annabell Park, the founder of a pro-Sanders Facebook group with hundreds of thousands of fans, suggested that the people who’d joined the session come up with a better, more democratic talking point than “Bernie or Bust.” The choice for Democrats was really “democracy” or bust.
“It’s really protesting this winner-take-all system that disenfranchises us on a deep level, not just at the ballot box,” Park said. “It’s a systemic problem where half the people who voted don’t get a voice at all. The solution, in a coalition government, would be, like, two candidate appointments. Bernie gets to pick the Treasury secretary, or whatever.”
As the discussion went on, clear factions formed between the people who wanted to rebrand and the people who were #StillSanders. Some worried about the activists they’d met who’d want to “disrupt” the Democratic convention from the inside. One delegate revealed that the Sanders campaign had been talking to Clinton delegates and found that perhaps half of them agreed with his goals of ending superdelegates or making it easier to vote in primaries.
“That’s good,” Park said. “We have limited time, and I think that coming up with the right talking point should be the focus of this meeting.”
She called on Christopher Horton. “Okay,” he said. “How about: The evidence is overwhelming that Bernie won the nomination, and we demand that superdelegates change their votes to reflect that.”
Park quickly moved on, and the diehards grew more frustrated. “There are most likely issues of criminality that have happened,” said one delegate before walking out. “It’s not just that we have a dysfunctional system.”
The hour came and went without any real resolution for the #StillSanders activists. They were not the only people who thought Sanders could still flip the nomination. Indeed, National Nurses United, the conference’s sponsor, was intending to support Sanders until the nomination vote.
“We’re going the distance with Bernie,” said NNU Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro at Sunday’s final session. “We’re going to the DNC. Want to come with us?”
But it’s proved difficult for Sanders, and his supporters, to float the possibility of a Philadelphia miracle without fueling more anger about how he lost. DeMoro herself had said that the Nevada caucuses were slanted to Clinton by dirty tricksters.
For some people, it followed that the party establishment was trying to steal the nomination. Far from Chicago, one group of dead-enders had announced that they would feed protesters beans and stage a Philadelphia solidarity “fart-in” for Sanders. In McCormick Place, at least 150 people raised their hands when DeMoro asked how many of them intended to physically protest the convention.
After seeing that, DeMoro offered an aside that subtly undercut the “Bernie or Bust” activists.
“We’re all going to be against Trump,” DeMoro said. “We know that.”
This article originally misspelled the name of Annabel Park.