Not only the youth: These unexpected voters also want Sanders’ America

By Gurjit Kaur
Medill Reports

In 2016, Paula and David Grapes voted for Donald Trump. But this year the married couple hope that Senator Bernie Sanders becomes the next leader of the United States. “He’s the last honest politician,” said Paula Grapes, 54. In March, she and an estimated 15,000 others gathered at a Chicago rally in Grant Park, wearing shirts and pins with Sanders’ name and image and holding blue and white “Bernie” signs.

The shift from a Republican to a Democrat, particularly from Trump to Sanders, may seem radical; however, Nick Kachiroubas, an election expert and professor at DePaul University’s School of Public Service, said it’s not as odd as it may appear because many Trump voters wanted (and continue to want) an atypical politician. “They still want somebody who’s an outsider, somebody who’s different, who doesn’t think like what they would consider to be the political mainstream,” Kachiroubas said. “And although Bernie’s policies are 100% different, he provides them another alternative that’s similar in style.”

The Grapes chose Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 in part because they dislike “old school” politicians, and they still do. Yet, substance matters just as much to them when it comes to Sanders.

Having lived in London and Australia, they see health insurance as a human right believing universal coverage helps everyone and lets people avoid taking a less desirable job for health insurance benefits. Paula Grapes, whose husband was president of W. W. Patterson Company, primarily a marine hardware business, said Sanders’ plan will benefit employees the most in terms of wages. “[Companies] could be giving you wages, higher wages, if they didn’t have to pay these godly amounts [to] private insurance,” she said. “They make no money off of it. It’s a huge profit for hospitals and doctors. It’s pathetic. It’s really pathetic.”

With Joe Biden sweeping Arizona, Florida and Illinois and leading by 303 delegates, Sanders’ chances of winning the Democratic nomination continues to decrease. But the senator from Vermont, who has come a long way since winning by a mere 10 votes to become mayor of Burlington in 1981, has given little indication of quitting, telling Seth Meyers last week that he will continue his campaign to “raise public consciousness” about issues that matter to his supporters. 

Since announcing he was running for president again, Sanders has promoted universal health care, tuition-free college, the elimination of college debt and a federal minimum wage of $15 among other issues. Young people’s enthusiasm for these policies and support of Sanders has been well documented (51% hold a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view in a recent poll), but they aren’t the only ones who believe in the senator’s revolution. Sanders message has resonated with a far more diverse group of people than most realize, reaching individuals across all backgrounds and demographics. If Biden does win the Democratic nomination, he will have to work hard to convince these unlikely Sanders supporters to vote for him.

Many of the Vermont senator’s supporters don’t want the status quo. “Bernie Sanders is a very compelling candidate for those who want fundamental change in the system as opposed to reform of the system,” said Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University who predicted eight of the last nine presidential elections.

Unlike most baby boomers, Edward Bouchard, 78, wants revolution over reformation. In the summer of 1966, he took a job as a project house worker at the Warren Avenue Congregational Church in Chicago, which Martin Luther King Jr. used as headquarters for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That summer, as a recent college graduate, he marched with King for civil rights. Influenced by the movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, his political ideology became liberal.

Bouchard, born in 1941 like Sanders, feels a kinship with the 78-year-old senator because they shared pivotal moments in history and fought for the same causes. Self-identifying as middle class, he finds the current healthcare system taxing on his finances. “Even with Medicare, it’s problematic. I can’t get all the health care I need without paying more money than I have. It’s ridiculous. I mean, it’s criminal,” he said.

Sanders supporters holding signs as they cheer on the senator. (Photo courtesy of Eric Henry)

In contrast, insurance underwriter Judy Bianco, 56, a young baby boomer, can afford anything she needs or wants. She sees little support for the senator among those in her industry, yet Sanders’ progressive agenda resonates with Bianco because she grew up in a working-class family. In her opinion, it sets her apart from others in the industry who are unable or unwilling to understand the problems working-class and low-income people face, and so have a disinclination to pay additional taxes as well. “They’re comfortable in their upper middle-class world, and they’re fine holding the status quo,” she said.

When it comes to African American voters, Sanders had four years to build up his support and while it has increased, he has failed to win the majority, especially among older voters.

“When you’re speaking of older African American voters, you’re speaking of a group that wants you to earn their support. They wants you to have been there over the long term in supporting them, and Joe Biden has been there, certainly serving as vice president to Barack Obama and [being strong] in the civil rights initiatives and other measures, such as the Affordable Care Act, a benefit to African American voters,” Lichtman said.

Rolanda Clark, 58, and Luke Townsend, 63, both older African Americans, feel differently about Sanders.

Clark, a member of the National Nurses United, supported Sanders in the last election and will continue to do so. “We’re nurses. We’re for healing people. And now we’re for healing our planet as well. Bernie was one of the first supporters of the Clean Energy Act,” Clark said. “We want our planet and people healthy, so he’s for both causes.”

Townsend, a lawyer and a Democrat his whole life, has faith in Sanders because of his consistency in his beliefs. Townsend’s anti-war stance connects him to the senator (who voted against the war in Iraq) and why, among other reasons, he wants Sanders to win the Democratic nomination. Townsend thinks Sanders would have more supporters if the media relayed his message to wider audiences and if he could shed the incorrect socialist label given to him by some.

“Dr. King and Nelson Mandela were both labeled socialists,” Townsend said. “They’re buzzwords designed to demonize.”

Many of these Sanders supporters said most of his policies would not benefit them. They back him for what he promises to do for the young, the less fortunate and future generations.

Kathleen Rothgery, a 45-year-old college-educated white woman (another group that largely prefers Biden) recognizes the world is inequitable. As an account manager, she said, “I have health insurance through my employer. I make well above minimum wage. I don’t have student loan debt. I don’t personally need these things, but I can see how everybody else around me would benefit from all of these.”

College costs loom large, especially for Bouchard, who remembers paying $92.53 in tuition a semester when he started college in 1959. He recently met a young saxophonist who earned a bachelors in music and left her program $60,000 in debt. He finds it difficult to even imagine having to pay any part of the $1.6 trillion student loan debt. “That’s just awful,” he said.

Growing up in a moderate to conservative household, Michael McManis, 53, was 18 years old when he cast his first vote for Ronald Reagan. He quickly regretted that decision after Reagan made cuts to student aid, and he lost his Pell Grant. A former English high school teacher, he now works in the corporate world as an event planner and said he often talks to businesspeople about the high college costs.

“Imagine how much money these folks will [save] if they weren’t sinking it all into healthcare, into high rent, into gigantic and ridiculous school loans,” McManis said. “You’re putting generations of kids in gigantic debt. They have to put off raising families, they have to put off doing the things that are supposed to be part of the American dream, like buying a home.”

At the end of the rally, as crowds dispersed, the Grapes thought about those less blessed. “We look around, we see the college debt, look at the problems with medical care, the insurance and how much it costs — yeah, it’s for other people.” said David Grapes, 68.

Because of their passion for the policies the Vermont senator has consistently championed, they said Biden is too moderate and currently have no plans to vote for him. While changing their hearts seems like an impossible task, the coming weeks and months will show if the former vice president, who has tried to reach out, can at least change the minds of some Sanders supporters.

Photo at top: Paula and David Grapes showing their support for the Vermont senator earlier this year. They’re ready for a change and believe Sanders is the best politician to address the problems of the United States. (Gurjit Kaur/MEDILL)