The move, which carried a threat of being removed as a delegate, has the effect of blunting one of the most powerful if divisive tools of Sanders’s movement — its unrestrained online presence and tendency to stoke controversy through other media, which has at times spiraled into abuse of his opponents, perceived and real.
“Refrain from making negative statements about other candidates, party leaders, Campaigns, Campaign staffers, supporters, news organizations or journalists. This Campaign is about the issues and finding solutions to America’s problems,” said the social media policy sent to some delegates. “Our job is to differentiate the senator from his opponents on the issues — not through personal attacks.”
“Do your best to avoid online arguments or confrontations,” the policy said. “If engaging in an adversarial conversation, be respectful when addressing opposing viewpoints or commenting on the opposition.”
The agreements angered some Sanders delegates, and the campaign is now working with delegates to adjust its demands.
Chris Liquori, a Sanders delegate from New Hampshire, said he heard about the documents on a conference call this week that left him with the impression that delegates in multiple states had received them.
“I think the campaign is trying to avoid, you know, a walkout or some really bad optics a la 2016,” Liquori said.
The rules, which were obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed by the Sanders campaign, were sent to some delegates last week. It was not known how broadly the rules were dispersed or who ordered them, but they included a social media policy, a nondisclosure agreement and a delegate code of conduct. The campaign declined to say what revisions it was planning.
“When delegates attend the Democratic convention, they will be representing Sen. Sanders, the ideas he ran on and the millions of working people who supported his campaign,” Sanders campaign spokesman Mike Casca said in a statement. “That is a serious responsibility and we’re asking them to follow a basic code of conduct while carrying out that duty.”
The stipulations come as presumptive nominee Joe Biden and his allies are eager to head off a repeat of the revolts of four years ago that many Democrats felt undermined Clinton’s campaign against President Trump.
At the same time, the Sanders movement is grappling with its future now that its candidate has been eliminated and is supporting Biden. Sanders’s supporters are known for their blunt and impassioned advocacy for his left-wing political revolution, and many have expressed vehement disdain for Biden and the Democratic establishment.
The senator — who associates say is closer with Biden than he ever was with Clinton — is seeking to forge a unified front with the former vice president heading into the general election. The two have formed policy working groups and frequently compliment each other. The agreements distributed by the Sanders campaign represent some of the most aggressive attempts yet to achieve harmony.
Delegates were told they “are expected to follow” the guidelines and that “failure to do so may result in disciplinary action, including but not limited to your removal from the delegation.”
The Sanders campaign said the requirements were not the product of a request from the Biden campaign, and the Biden campaign said it was not previously aware of them.
Key parts of the five-page orders appeared designed to prevent unflattering news reports about disagreements in the party. “Social media postings have the potential to generate media coverage,” the document warned, before instructing delegates how to address a press inquiry. “If a member of the media contacts you about a posting of any kind: do not respond,” it said. Instead, it continues, contact the Sanders press office.
“Before tweeting or posting from your personal social media accounts, ask yourself these questions: If this appeared on the front page of The New York Times, would it compromise Bernie Sanders’s message, credibility, or reputation? Could it potentially risk your standing as a delegate? When re-tweeting or sharing information from others, are you applying necessary skepticism?” the social media policy said.
The nondisclosure agreement banning delegates from divulging confidential information said they may not “author or create a book, article, academic study, video, movie, or other content” without written approval from the Sanders campaign.
Delegates said they were put off by the measures.
“Some of the intent and some of the wording was really not agreeable to some of our Colorado delegation,” said Lori Boydston, a Sanders delegate from Colorado. She said that a committee discussed changes they proposed to the Sanders campaign, which the campaign accepted. “All is good,” she added.
But Boydston said she was unsure what the full scope of the changes would be. “Some of the wording was really stifling what to say,” she said, adding, “What we really want to do is make sure we’re still talking about issues.”
Delegate slates are still being formalized in many states, and not all confirmed Sanders delegates received the initial agreements. Heather Stockwell, a Sanders delegate from New Hampshire, said she had not seen or received the rules but had learned about them from associates.
“I did hear about it from other delegates in other states that they were trying to work with the campaign to change some of the wording because it was kind of offensive,” Stockwell said. “Some people were really upset.”
Zach Thomas, a Sanders delegate in Utah who received the documents, said he was not alarmed by them, but “I could definitely see how others could take it a different way if they are still supporting Senator Sanders and kind of more that movement instead of the party itself.”
The stipulations would stand to benefit Biden in stemming public disagreement with his campaign by liberal members of his own party and a repeat of the spectacle, if there is a physical gathering, of the convention disruptions Clinton faced from Sanders supporters in 2016 in Philadelphia.
Just as the last convention was about to start, Sanders addressed his delegates and urged them to get behind Clinton. Many disagreed, booing loudly as TV cameras captured the dissent, which continued on the convention floor and stoked anger inside Clinton’s campaign.
Amid concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, it’s unclear whether Democrats will convene in Milwaukee as planned. Originally scheduled for July, the convention has been pushed back to mid-August in hopes that health conditions will improve by then. But Democrats also have begun changing their rules to accommodate a scaled-back or virtual meeting. (Republicans are still publicly planning an in-person convention at the end of August in Charlotte.)
If virtual conventions replace the traditional variety, interviews with reporters and postings on social media and other online platforms could emerge as the main venues for delegates to express themselves.
Sanders supporters have gained a reputation for attacking critics and rivals online more aggressively than backers of other politicians. In the past, the senator has faced pressure from Democrats who have felt he did not go far enough to compel his followers to ease hostilities, particularly in the online sphere. At times, Sanders simply has distanced himself from the attacks.
Sanders suspended his campaign on April 8 after concluding that he had no feasible path to victory against Biden and didn’t wish to extend his run in the midst of a pandemic. He soon endorsed Biden, but said he wished to remain on the ballots in the states yet to vote so that he could add to his delegate total at the convention. The point, Sanders and his supporters have said, is to gain leverage over the party platform and other important decisions.
While Sanders has lined up behind Biden more quickly than he backed Clinton, some of his supporters and former staffers have refused to fall in line and continue to criticize the former vice president.
The personal dynamic between Biden and Sanders, coupled with an urgency to defeat Trump, has given Democrats hope for smoother relations in the party as the November election draws near. One encouraging indicator they have pointed to was Biden’s adoption of policies that moved him closer to Sanders.
Sanders has voiced confidence about the prospect of unity, citing the imperative in the party to defeat Trump as a reason he thinks his supporters will rally behind Biden.
“I think at the end of the day, the vast majority of the people who voted for me, who supported me, will understand and do understand that Donald Trump is the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said in a recent interview on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” “And I think, at the end of day, they will be voting for Joe Biden.”
David Weigel and Alice Crites contributed to this report.