Can Obama Get Bernie’s Kids Fired Up and Ready to Vote in November?

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President Obama Speaks On Ongoing Water Contamination Crisis In Flint
A little-known fact: POTUS is very popular among Sanders voters. Photo: Bill Pugliano/2016 Getty Images

Democrats anxious about the damage a protracted presidential nominating contest could inflict on party-unity prospects for victory in November often look back at the 2008 elections for solace. In that year Hillary Clinton’s famous bitter-end PUMA (“Party Unity My Ass!”) followers mostly came around, though not without a pretty good push from their candidate and her husband at the 2008 Democratic convention. 

Today political scientist Alan Abramowitz takes a closer look at the trajectory of 2008 Clinton supporters and finds that virtually all of them wound up in Obama’s column in November — with the exception of a small faction who were pro-McCain from the get-go. These latter voters are analogous to (and in some cases could be the same actual people as) this year’s conservative Democratic Sanders "supporters" in places like Oklahoma and West Virginia, who are trapped by election rules in Democratic primaries but would probably vote for Trump over either Democrat in November.

In terms of the dynamics of bringing disappointed primary voters around, Abramowitz notes that there is an ideological edge to Sanders’s campaign that was largely lacking in 2008, making reconciliation more difficult. The heavy youth component of Team Bernie is an issue, too; young voters are much more marginal general-election voters than the older women who dominated PUMA-land in 2008. But Abramowitz also observes that there is a force for unity that was not available eight years ago, either: a Democratic president of the United States who is very popular in both camps:

The Clinton campaign clearly will need a strong get-out-the-vote effort and all the help they can get from Sanders in motivating his young supporters to turn out in November. But someone else should also be able to help a great deal with the task of unifying Democrats and increasing turnout among Sanders supporters: President Obama. Fortunately for Clinton, Obama is extremely popular with Democratic voters, including Sanders supporters. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll, Obama’s approval rating among Democrats was 88% and his approval rating among Sanders primary voters was 82%.

This may come as a surprise to those who spend a lot of time listening to elite Sanders supporters who view Obama as the latest in a line of centrist Democratic sell-outs and triangulaters. But Cornel West is not your typical Bernie fan. Lest we forget, Obama was nearly as inspiring a figure to young people eight years ago as Sanders is today, and his reach across racial and other demographic lines was actually broader.  

So something to watch for as the Democratic primaries end and the convention approaches is Obama emerging from backstage and offering himself as a focal point for a reconciliation between Clinton and Sanders and as a relentless critic of Donald Trump and the party Trump has conquered. With Obama now being more popular than Clinton, there’s really little downside to enlisting POTUS in this role. And perhaps he can recapture the uncanny knack he had in 2008 to get young people, Democrats and independents alike, fired up and ready to go.