"Who’s ready for a little political revolution?!?”
Monte Jarvis, the Oregon state director for the Bernie Sanders campaign, is standing before a small crowd of volunteers and staffers. It’s the morning of the Oregon primary, and young people in jean jackets and Bernie T-shirts have gathered in a squat storefront on a busy street in Portland. They’re preparing to hang flyers on doors throughout the city, reminding people to get their ballots in by the 8 p.m. deadline.
“You are the heart of soul of this political revolution,” Jarvis tells them. "Bernie has always said this is not about him. It’s about us.”
Pundits, pollsters, and politicos claim to know how this story ends—they’ve declared this political patient terminal. Dead man campaigning. The math just isn’t there for Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Heading into the Oregon primary, Clinton had 1,716 pledged delegates to Sanders’s 1,433, and 524 superdelegates to his 40. As of Monday, in order to surpass Clinton, Sanders needed to win almost 90 percent of the remaining delegates, according to the L.A. Times. And while Tuesday was expected to go well for Sanders in Oregon and Kentucky, Clinton would take some—and very likely half—of the delegates in those proportional contests.
Washington and Oregon were both expected to favor Sanders. But in the days leading up to Oregon’s primary, the state seemed to be moving away from a guaranteed win for Sanders. A small survey of Oregon voters conducted in early May showed Clinton up by between 7 and 15 percentage points, depending on the turnout. And Oregon’s primary, like Kentucky’s, is closed, meaning independents couldn’t vote for the Democratic nominee unless they changed their party registration by April 26. Sanders has struggled in states with closed primaries.
On top of that, enthusiasm in some corners of the Sanders camp appears to be waning. In the weeks since my own super pro-Sanders caucus in Seattle—where I caucused for Sanders—calls for Democrats to unify around Clinton have grown louder. My own excitement about Sanders’s candidacy has been eroded, beat down by delegate math and the outlandish behavior of some Sanders supporters. (Exhibit A: The death threats Sanders supporters sent the chairwoman of the Nevada Democratic Party after a bitter rule dispute at last weekend’s state convention.)
But the Sanders supporters I encountered over two days in Portland—an assignment to chronicle what may be the last big, futile win of the Sanders campaign—did not share my waning belief in Sanders’s candidacy. If I am at the “acceptance” stage of grieving in this campaign, and Sanders supporters in Nevada are at the “anger” stage, most of the die-hard Sanders fans I encountered in Portland are deep in either denial or bargaining.
The stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—don’t necessarily happen in a linear order (at least that’s what Grief.com tells me). Instead, they’re phases we’re all likely to experience at different points on the way to accepting that something terrible has happened. (They also happen to be a cultural trope. I’m not the first one to apply them to the coming demise of Sanders’s candidacy.) But arriving in Portland, I expected to find Sanders supporters in various stages of the grieving process. I figured I couldn’t be the only Sanders supporter who had already made it through bargaining and depression by the time I showed up to caucus for Sanders in Seattle in late March. By that point, the math was already favoring Clinton. And while I won’t be surprised when I get angry e-mails criticizing this framing—yet another participant in the media blackout—this is the natural process for supporters of a political campaign that looks likely to lose.
As I’ve said on Slog before, the absolutism from Bern-ers who believe there would be no difference between a Clinton presidency and a Trump presidency is embarrassing. But all the optimism in Portland made me weary. Sanders’s candidacy isn’t dead, but it’s clearly dying. We can argue about whether the momentum behind his ideas is here to stay, but when do we acknowledge that the campaign itself is on life support? Bernie says it’s not about him. It’s about us. So when are we allowed to pivot away from him?
Every volunteer I spoke with on the Sanders campaign in Portland said they believed he still had a path to the nomination—a whole team of people in optimistic denial or frantic bargaining, each seasoned with a bit of anger at the media. (“We’re strong, but not as strong as if the media had been fair,” one volunteer told me.) Some believe he can win the nomination by overcoming the hard-to-beat delegate math; others suggested he could convince Democratic superdelegates long pledged to Clinton to change their minds and support him. Others said news could break about the Clinton Foundation or the FBI investigation into Clinton’s e-mails that could turn the tide between now and the convention.
The bargaining the Sanders volunteers are going through here is that he can still win, but even if he doesn’t win—which, remember, he still can!—he created the movement they are a part of and that’s a big win. It’s an enticing way to think about a disappointing outcome. Even if he loses, he’s already won. They believe he’s forced the Democratic Party leftward (see: Clinton’s new position on Medicare, kinda, and her support for minimum wage, sorta) and revealed flaws in the Democrats’ process for selecting their nominee. One said this campaign could make Sanders the “the most powerful senator” in the country.
“Every vote [for Sanders] sends a message to the Democratic Party: We don’t like what you’re doing,” says 27-year-old Robyn Gottlieb on Election Day as we wind through a lush residential neighborhood with a stack of Sanders door-hangers reminding people to turn their ballots in. Gottlieb says she and her boyfriend (he’s also an organizer) got evicted without cause (that’s legal in Oregon) and are now living with his parents. That gives her the ability to work for the campaign full-time (for free), something she says—impressively on message—she won’t be able to do again until she’s retired, “which, if Bernie isn’t elected, god knows when that will be.”
Gottlieb has canvassed for the campaign in a handful of other states, finding places to stay through something called BernieBnB. She’s enthusiastic, tireless, and the only Sanders volunteer I talked to in Portland who said she hadn’t ruled out voting for Clinton. But she’s “still focused on Bernie,” she says without pause. “That’s where all my energy is.”
It’s around 6 a.m., and we’re searching for the house numbers of likely Sanders supporters. Gottlieb tiptoes onto front porches where Priuses and Fiats sit in the driveways and housecats peer out from windows. She’s been up all night, starting with a shift of this door-hanging from midnight to 2:30 a.m. How does someone have the energy for this when the math is so impossible to deny, I wonder.
“The movement is powerful, and it’s exciting to see where it will go,” Gottlieb tells me. “With or without a Bernie presidency, that [energy] doesn’t go anywhere.”
I suggest to her that people said the same thing about Barack Obama in 2008. His supporters were supposed to start a movement and push the country left. That didn’t happen. Gottlieb reasons that progressives were frustrated with the way Obama movement fizzled, and the Occupy movement after it, but this time it will be different.
“It’s kind of been building to this,” Gottlieb says.
Before I met Gottlieb for early-morning canvassing, I arrived at the Sanders headquarters on Monday afternoon—their last full day of door-knocking and phone banking.
“People’s energy, their need to give their all is still there,” Jarvis, the state director for the campaign, tells me. “They’re still burning for Bernie.”
Jarvis brushes off my defeatism. “A path [to the nomination] is still there,” he says flatly, “and our piece of that path is to win Oregon.” During our conversation, his phone rings and he steps into an office to take it. “That was the senator,” he says when he returns. “Really?” I ask. “What did he say?” “He’s just very interested in what’s happening here,” Jarvis says. “I’d rather not say.” I let him get back to work.
Nearby, Mandalynn Harbert is gathering her two precocious kids, 5-year-old Gray and 2-year-old Coral, to go knock on doors. Harbert, a 27-year-old Sanders supporter from Vancouver, Washington, has been commuting to Portland to help the campaign. She says she believes “in my heart” that Sanders can win the nomination.
“A lot of people still feel we can win this,” Harbert says. “We’re walking into a contested convention either way. But defeatism is real, and the media uses it against us.”
I don’t have the heart to tell her how I feel.
As we walk from door to door, her kids carry handmade Sanders buttons. The oldest apparently has his own pro-Sanders talking points, though he seems to have forgotten them when Harbert asks him, several times over the course of the afternoon, to tell me why he likes Bernie. “I don’t know,” he tells me.
As Harbert steps onto a big front porch, 35-year-old Tiffany Holmes comes to the door. She and her husband have already gotten their ballots in for Sanders.
Holmes says she’ll vote for Clinton if she has to, but she doesn’t trust her. “I just don’t think she has my best interests at heart,” she says, particularly where income inequality is concerned. Holmes laments the way Portland’s culture has changed and the city has gotten more expensive in the 12 years since she moved here. Her neighbors now are “doctors and lawyers,” she says.
“Sanders is the only viable option,” Holmes tells me. “I honestly feel like [Sanders] has the popular vote. I think if we truly followed the popular vote, he’d be the candidate of choice.”
Unfortunately, feelings don’t count in elections. According to a tally maintained by Real Clear Politics, Clinton leads Sanders by three million votes.
"I found myself on the wrong side of the health-care system.”
That’s how Mira Luna, a 40-year-old Portlander I find phone banking in a satellite Sanders HQ in Portland, describes her years-long battle with Lyme disease, a struggle that left her temporarily unemployed, homeless, and “in and out of the ICU.” Luna says that experience, and particularly the difficulty she had finding an insurance company willing to cover her medications, makes her a supporter of Sanders and his health-care policies.
Luna says she grew up in Texas with her grandfather, who knew the Bush family personally, and got her start in politics fighting a nuclear waste dump in West Texas. But she was quickly turned off of politics when she saw the influence of lobbyists and campaign contributions. She says Sanders is “the candidate I’ve been waiting for.”
“Even though it looks like a steep challenge,” Luna says, “it’s never been so close for progressives, so we should push through to the end.”
As we talk, she presses stickers on door hangers with links to ballot drop boxes. The room smells like fresh coffee, and other volunteers on phones nearby repeat their talking points. The clear favorite, the talking point I hear over and over again, is that Sanders “polls much better against Trump” than Clinton. And that’s true—just as true as “Clinton leads Sanders by three million votes.”
The primary election night party is at the Sanders campaign’s main Portland headquarters. A couple hundred people have crowded in to hear the first results of the night: Sanders is up with 57 percent of the vote. The crowd roars as live video of Sanders giving a speech at a rally in California begins to play. The Portland crowd whoops at mentions of “social justice” and “environmental justice.” They boo at a mention of independents being unable to vote in Oregon’s closed primary—even though Sanders is on track to win without them—and they boo louder when Sanders slams “the media and pundits” who “determined we were a fringe candidacy.”
Sanders says he believes “we have a good shot” at winning more states. Winning the majority of delegates will be a steep climb, he admits. But “together we have been climbing that steep hill from day one.”
The room is hot. A young woman says she might cry. More people are crowding in. No one is talking about Kentucky, where Clinton won by the slimmest of margins, or the fact that Clinton’s loss in Oregon still brings her closer to clinching the nomination.
“We’re gonna continue to fight for every last vote until June 14,” Sanders says, “and we’re gonna take our fight to the convention.”
The crowd roars. They wave Bernie signs and Solo cups in the air. For a moment, everyone—myself included—is happily in denial.