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Supporters distrust the Democratic party and are frustrated with an election system they say works against their candidate

Ekene Okonkwo studies political science, advocates for gun control and reproductive rights, and is voting in a presidential election for the first time this year. But only if she can vote for Bernie Sanders.

The 19-year-old, who studies political science and lives in the Bronx, said the Vermont senator is the only candidate she trusts to deal with the issues she cares most about on climate change, for instance, she called former vice-president Joe Bidens plan unfeasible. A vote for Biden, who is likely to be the Democratic nominee in November, would only give the party more reason to take her vote for granted, she said.

If we lose to Trump then hopefully within the next four years maybe an AOC or Rashida Tlaib would be able to run, Okonkwo said, referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and another progressive politician who has gained popularity in the last two years. Maybe there would be a better chance to save the planet.

Okonkwo is not alone in her unequivocal and uncompromising support for Sanders. She is part of a loosely connected but vocal group, sometimes uniting under hashtags like #BernieorBust or #NeverBiden who say they will not vote for Biden if he wins the nomination. While its nearly impossible to know how large the group is, hundreds of people have shared this sentiment, including progressive political candidates.

It may be impossible to quantify their number, but not their influence. Those Democrats who will not yield to a moderate and vote for Biden if he wins the nomination are the same group who are sometimes blamed for Donald Trumps victory in 2016 when disappointed Sanders fans sat out the general election.

Bernie Sanders supporters at a campaign rally in Richmond, Virginia, on 27 February. Photograph: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

And the past few weeks have been hard to swallow for Sanders fans. After a strong early showing in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire his star faded on Super Tuesday. Supporters were left disappointed again this week when he lost to Biden in Michigan, where he edged out Hillary Clinton in 2016. This poor performance is partly due to an unexpectedly weak youth vote despite Sanders vaunted ability to mobilise younger Americans.

As the Sanders campaign reckons with the fallout, and former Democratic candidates rush to endorse Biden, the #BernieorBust fans are grappling with a repeat of 2016. Its hard to tell how their decision could affect the election, but in 2016, a similar group of people who boycotted Hillary Clinton on election day contributed to her loss in swing states like Florida, where more than 200,000 people voted for independent candidates such as Gary Johnson or Jill Stein.

If you distrust something, you are more likely to opt out of it, said Rashawn Ray, a governance fellow at the Brookings Institution. And Sanders supporters dont trust the Democratic party. They think its political sabotage, and not allowing Bernie to have a fair shot. So what do people do? They opt out.

Martha Baez, a 54-year-old who works in finance, is one of those voters. She is registered as an independent and voted for Jill Stein in 2016. There was failure in getting me out to the polls with the lesser of two evils theory, she said of the argument that whatever Clintons perceived flaws, she was better than Trump.

This year, Baez is planning to vote for Sanders in the New York primary, and will not vote for Biden if he is the nominee in November.But she said her real issue was not with the specific candidate, but losing trust in the Democratic party. I dont think that I should put aside my values and vote out of fear, she said. The DNC needs an overhaul, it lacks values, real leaders that represent the people not its donors.

The impact on the supreme court or other policies, she said, was not her responsibility.

Why is that my problem? she said. Shouldnt it have been considered before selecting the chosen one? Will they try and flip the script and make it my issue or fault?

Jessica Wright, an avid Sanders supporter in east Texas, tweeted that she was #BernieorBust after his Super Tuesday defeat in her state. She said she was angry that other Democratic candidates had dropped out just before the big primary day to endorse Joe Biden, and wanted the so-called Democratic establishment to know they were letting down people like her.

Wright, 37, works at a hospital and said she and her husband live paycheck to paycheck. She said Sanders policies would be the best for her family, including family members married to immigrants struggling to gain citizenship status in the US. But given that a Trump election could be worse, and herald new conservative court appointees and other harmful policies, she is still considering voting for Biden, or at the very least, voting down ballot in other, non-presidential races on election day.

For me not voting would be to send a message: what youve done is not OK, Wright said. I wish there was a way to vote for [Biden] and still send that message.

Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard government professor who studies political campaigns, said there is a similar sour grapes group during every election, even if its not a big enough group to swing the result. But he said what determines whether or not Sanders supporters will show up for Biden depends on how the latter treats them in the coming months.

When you lose [your candidate] its like a death in the family, he said. Thats the bitterness of the emotions. Biden knows that bitterness so he could be empathetic and bring those people back to the fold. He gave the example of the 1988 Democratic primary, when frontrunner Michael Dukakis reached a compromise with his opponent Jesse Jackson by changing party rules to tie the delegate vote more closely to the popular vote, giving Jackson a partial victory.

Ansolabehere also pointed out that Sanders progressive movement relies heavily on young people going to the polls. But even if they are politically engaged, this subset of voters consistently deals with more hurdles to register to vote because of restrictive voting policies around address changes and identification. In New Hampshire, for example, a Republican-backed law requires that many young voters have a drivers license to vote.

Its hard to organize a campaign around younger generations, Ansolabehere said. You only have 50% chance of being registered when youre 18 years old. And that could have played a role during Super Tuesday, when youth turnout (ages 18 to 29) was only an estimated 14% in Virginia, and 5% in Tennessee, according to a Tufts University exit poll.

Ray also said voter suppression is alive and well and probably affected turnout for Sanders. But he said that the group that is more likely to determine the election is the 11% of white voters, mostly suburban and often women, who switched from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in the last election.

For Sanders supporters, these obstacles only drive home the frustration around an election system that they say works against their candidate.

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Habiba Choudhary, a Sanders supporter who was canvassing in Michigan, saw the long polling station lines firsthand on Tuesday in Sanders-friendly communities like Dearborn and perceived this as a way to rig the election in favor of Biden. The New York-based 28-year-old, who identifies with the #BernieorBust movement, said the senators message resonated with her family, Bangladeshi immigrants who share a one-bedroom apartment in Queens.

Sanders seemed to be the only candidate whose policies could ease the plight of her father, a taxi driver dealing with healthcare issues, and her sister, who is straining to pay back student loans. Enough is enough we tried the neoliberalism and were sick and tired of it, she said. [Sanders] gave me and other people that voice.

Nevertheless, Choudhary said, she would follow Sanders lead when it came to voting in November. In 2016, the senator accepted defeat after the primary, and went on to endorse Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.

I know Bernie is super consistent, she said. His supporters are gonna come out for Biden.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/13/bernie-sanders-fans-joe-biden-democratic-candidate