PHILADELPHIA — On Saturday morning, shortly before Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) was introduced to his last Iowa audience of the campaign, an Iowa State organizer named Kaleb Vanfosson stepped up to the microphone. He started talking about student loan debt and how “full-time bigot Donald Trump” had no plan to alleviate it. Then he argued that Hillary Clinton had no plan, either.
“She is so trapped in the world of the elite that she has completely lost a grip on what it’s like to be an average person,” he said as a campaign worker appeared to direct him to an exit. “She doesn’t care. Voting for another 'the lesser of two evils,' there’s no point.”
The moment, which went a little viral, was jarring not because it represented a trend; it was jarring because it didn’t. After the most ideologically fraught Democratic primary since at least the 1980s, and after a convention that saw multiple walkouts by some Sanders delegates, Clinton appears to have less of a challenge on her left flank than Al Gore did in 2000; final polls show her enjoying party loyalty comparable to that of Barack Obama in his two campaigns.
In left-wing and socialist publications, there have been cases for Clinton and arguments about protest voting, but little of the “two evils” nihilism that marked 2000. The Nation, a source of support for Ralph Nader that year, has repeatedly endorsed Clinton, arguing in its latest editorial that the Democratic nominee “now stands with progressives” on key issues and that on “criminal justice and trade policy, she’s moved left even when that involved renouncing her husband’s legacy.”
In These Times published a letter from many Democratic Socialists of America against “lesser evil” -- only alongside a criticism of the Green campaign and an endorsement of Clinton from the writer Jesse Myerson.
“Imagine the boost to militant working-class organizing when the liberal-in-chief lacks a working-class base of enthusiastic support,” Myerson wrote. “It's not that she's the *lesser* evil, though she is; it's that she's the *more strategically useful* evil.”
Meanwhile, few of the celebrities and intellectuals who backed Nader 16 years ago have backed this year’s Green Party nominee, Jill Stein. Michael Moore, who once introduced Nader at his “mega-rallies,” will hold a rally-cum-movie-screening tonight in his home town, Flint, Mich. Susan Sarandon has endorsed Stein; her ex-husband Tim Robbins, who joined her on the 2000 campaign trail, has endorsed Clinton.
Sarandon’s endorsement letter identified the problem, one that has seen Stein’s supporters sink out of view in the campaign’s final weeks. “Now that Trump is self-destructing,” she wrote last week, “I feel even those in swing states have the opportunity to vote their conscience.”
The letter appeared as Trump, left for dead more times than Tom Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” enjoyed one last uptick in the polls, including a bump in states that had been seen as locks for Clinton. Sarandon was largely stranded as other progressives stressed the importance of backing Clinton.
“All you ever get is a good chance to push the policies you want,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of a handful of members of Congress who endorsed Sanders over Clinton. “Would you rather hold Clinton to a progressive platform that includes a $15-per-hour minimum wage and action on climate change, or would you fight like hell to stop Trump from signing the Republican platform into law? Anyone who’s still convinced that Clinton is not a great candidate, bear in mind, your role does not end on Election Day.”
In another campaign, a Republican nominee might have tried to split the Democratic base with the words of the defeated Sanders. In 1980, Democrats for Reagan ran a brutal ad that consisted of nothing but then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, during the New York primary, tearing apart the record of President Jimmy Carter.
Trump’s campaign, with even more immediate access to video of Sanders criticizing Clinton, made no apparent attempt to use it. Trump’s pitch to Sanders voters was frequently limited to the blanket assertion that, as opponents of “rigged” systems, they would come his way. Clinton's campaign and the allied NextGen super PAC did far more to warn voters away from casting a third-party vote, with ads on social media from Facebook to Snapchat to Instagram.
There’s been only a fitful effort to promote Stein, or promote not voting, to liberals. The Green Party candidate has continued to appear on Fox News, to be covered by Breitbart and to appear in sympathetic online forums. But a RealClearPolitics average of her support in a four-way race has found it falling from a peak of 4 percent to a pre-election 1.8 percent. She spent the last day of the election in Texas, a contrast with Nader’s attention-grabbing final 2000 appearances in swing states.
All of that happened while Clinton’s campaign dealt with a challenge unlike any faced by a previous campaign: a steady drip of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, which provided evidence of infighting and, in several cases, Clinton allies using their media access to undermine Sanders.
The senator’s response has helped limit the damage of those hacks. He has turned down almost every national interview in the last stretch of the campaign, preventing any chance of being asked about the hacks. When he last responded, in an interview with The Washington Post’s John Wagner, he shrugged and said that a hack of his own campaign’s emails would find “statements that would be less than flattering” about the Clinton campaign.
On Saturday, hours after the embarrassing Iowa State moment, Sanders blew into Colorado Springs to talk to a student-heavy crowd at Colorado College. One Stein protester stalked outside, with “the DNC cheated” written across her Green Party sign. Over 30 minutes, no student walked up to speak to her; for 45 minutes, across a main hall and an overflow room, they heard Sanders describe Clinton as the “vastly superior” candidate for president.