How Joe Biden is working to win over progressive voters

Rebecca Morin, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – For Ean Tafoya, the political revolution is far from over. 

That doesn't mean he won't vote for Joe Biden.

"I'll knock doors in a Bernie (Sanders) shirt for (Biden), to show people that our movement is still here, but that we believe in moving beyond this last four years," Tafoya said.

Tafoya, 34, a climate activist from Denver, supported both of Sanders' presidential runs. He said it was "heartbreaking" when Sanders dropped out of the race in early April; he received numerous calls from his friends, crying.

Although Tafoya said progressives who supported Sanders still need time to grieve and heal, he recognizes it would be far easier to pass their policies under a Democratic administration than a Republican one.

"Ultimately, it seems like we can get more progress through the initiatives that we ... care about through Biden than Trump," Tafoya said.

Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is going to need young voters, many who identify as "progressive" and had supported Sanders' campaign, to win the 2020 presidential election. Though young voters made up roughly 27% of voters in 2016, they are seen as essential for campaigns and are often relied on for the critical grassroots work of knocking on doors and activating voters.

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The Biden campaign announced working groups focused on several issues of particular importance to progressive voters, one of which will be chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Biden, who has been endorsed by Sanders, also has rolled out policy initiatives aimed at wooing progressive voters, including expanding government-funded health insurance through Medicare to people 60 and older and a debt forgiveness plan focused on students in low- and middle-income households.

Biden will have to balance courting progressives with maintaining his appeal to moderate voters in swing states, many of whom abandoned Hillary Clinton in 2016 but might not want to vote for Donald Trump again. The former vice president built much of his primary campaign around appealing to a broad swath of voters.

"Americans aren't looking for revolution," Biden told the "TODAY" show in late February, days before the South Carolina primary victory that revived his campaign. "They're looking for progress. They're looking for, 'Tell me how you're going to help me with my health care. Tell me you'll make me safer.' "

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) greets supporters after a campaign rally at the Charleston Area Convention Center on Feb. 26, 2020 in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Though Biden is making inroads with top progressives groups, several leaders noted they still want to know more about Biden's plans for incorporating their values into his agenda.

"We think it is important that if Vice President Biden wants to win the youth vote, he has to move on the issues, so that when young people are looking at candidates and looking at the different differences between the candidates on the issue, that they can get more excited that they see candidates that are actually championing what they care for," said Sarah Audelo, executive director of Alliance for Youth Action.

Working groups bring Biden, Sanders supporters together

Since Sanders dropped out of the Democratic race, progressive groups and the Biden campaign have created a dialogue. Last week's announcement on the working groups was in part the fruit of that labor.

In the days after Sanders left the race, the Sunrise Movement, which focuses on climate change, along with six other groups focused on issues such as gun control, immigration and foreign policy urged Biden in an open letter to adopt a litany of stances. 

They asked Biden to commit to a $10 trillion Green New Deal stimulus package, legalization of marijuana, implementing a "wealth tax" and a plan to reduce gun deaths by 50% in ten years. Audelo said the issues the groups laid out are all important policies for young progressives and that Biden moving on these issues could create excitement for those voters.

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"It is incumbent on the Biden campaign to hear the expertise that folks have and really follow their guidance in terms of policy change," Audelo said of the working groups. "So that way, a lot of folks can be seen as surrogates hopefully for the campaign. They are the validators that the campaign really needs."

Sarah Audelo, executive director of Alliance for Youth Action , is pictured.

After the letter was sent, Biden and Sanders worked to create the policy working groups that would address several issues that are particularly important to young progressives. The groups will be focused on the economy, education, criminal justice, immigration and climate change.

The working groups include allies of both Biden and Sanders. 

Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who have both said they are voting for Biden but previously endorsed Sanders, are each co-chairs of a group. (Jayapal also is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.) Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, Maggie Thompson, former executive director of Generation Progress, and Marisa Franco, director of the Latinx group Mijente, are among the participants.

The policy groups will meet before the Democratic National Convention in August to make recommendations for the Democratic National Committee platform and to Biden. 

The coalition of progressive groups who had previously written the letter to Biden called the appointments a "major win for youth organizations that are building political power for young people across the country." 

"We hope the Biden team will continue to listen to and consult with youth leaders and our demands as it advances its campaign, and makes actual appointments to its transition team and Administration," the coalition said in a statement this week. "We need to see continued commitments from them and the DNC to promote the solutions that galvanize our generation and give us hope in the political process. Today, we are one step closer."

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Matt Hill, deputy national press secretary for the Biden campaign, said in a statement, "Progressive voters are a key part of our growing coalition to defeat Trump and enact bold change that will tackle the most pressing issues Americans face right now, including rebuilding our economy after the crisis, expanding health care, making college affordable, and more."

The Biden campaign is still coordinating with groups such as the Sunrise Movement, March for Our Lives and United We Dream, beyond the policy working groups. On Biden's campaign, senior adviser Symone Sanders, who served on Sanders' 2016 campaign, along with senior adviser Cristóbal Alex and policy director Stef Feldman have spearheaded engagement with outside groups.

The campaign is focusing on engaging two types of progressives organizations: Traditional groups such as Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, and new-wave groups, such as the Sunrise Movement and March for Our Lives, that attract younger and more diverse voters. 

The Biden campaign was endorsed by the Progressive Turnout Project, which says it will the invest $52.5 million to knock on more than 10.5 million doors in 17 presidential and Senate battleground states this year.

Ben Wessel, director of NextGen America, said Biden's updated plans to expand Medicare and forgive some student debt is helpful to get progressives on board with his campaign.

"That's a real show of empathy to our young people that they feel like they're not getting from their leaders, where everyone feels like they're being strung out to dry," Wessel said. "So having someone say that they've got your back on this, even if it's small, I think is a good thing."

Biden has been criticized by some on the left over his vote for the Iraq War and for his previous stance supporting the Hyde Amendment, a long-standing law that blocks federal funding for abortion in most cases. Biden last summer said he no longer supports the amendment. 

A recent USA TODAY/Suffolk poll showed that the vast majority of Sanders supporters (77%) said they will vote for Biden in the general election. But nearly 1 in 4 Sanders supporters (22%) said they would vote for a third-party candidate, vote for President Donald Trump, not vote in November or were undecided about who to vote for, according to the poll.

Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said Biden could  have a hard time getting enthusiastic support from former Sanders supporters because of  his lengthy record – three decades of Senate votes and two terms in the White House as President Barack Obama's vice president.

Reeher said it's "not gonna rub a lot of these Bernie Sanders supporters particularly in the right way," with how Biden has portrayed his own record.

"That's a tougher argument he's making because there's a record there that's sometimes at odds with that narrative of him," Reeher said.

The allegation from Tara Reade that she was sexually assaulted by Biden while working for his Senate office has also brought additional scrutiny from voters. Biden has emphatically denied the allegation, saying it "never happened."

Almost half – 45% – of voters between the ages of 18 and 34 believe Reade's allegation is true, according to a Monmouth University poll published last week. 

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Several progressive leaders have said that they appreciate Biden not attacking Reade's character, but there is also concern that there needs to be accountability.

"Right now we're kind of stuck in a he-said, she-said situation," said Evan Weber, political director for Sunrise Movement. "We really don't have a system that is designed to deal with these claims and deliver real justice for survivors and center their feeling in the process."

But Ben Wessel, executive director of NextGen America, noted that in a focus group  conducted several weeks ago by his organization's youth mobilization arm, voters said the allegation didn't disqualify Biden, and they wanted to see him address it. Since then, Biden has addressed the allegation in interviews.

"We've seen Biden do what I don't think too many of our young progressives would expect ... a typical politician to do, which is he went on TV, directed his comments to the American people, and was really honest and open about it," Wessel said. "I actually think that's what voters want to see, that's what our people want to hear. They don't want someone to sweep things under the rug."

'Bernie isn’t the hero, the ideas are'

One leader in the coalition of groups that sent Biden the letter last month did express some dissatisfaction in not being contacted individually by the campaign. 

Emily Mayer, political director for IfNotNow Movement, said the organization is disappointed there is not a working group focused on foreign policy and the group was not contacted by the campaign. 

The IfNotNow Movement endorsed Sanders in the 2020 election, and Mayer said the organization and Sanders' campaign were in "very frequent conversation."

"We've seen what a disaster Trump has been for American foreign policy," Murray said. "I would hope that Joe Biden and the people around him are going to put forward a progressive vision for how to not only restore the place America has in the world but actually to make American foreign policy the sort of just instrument it should be."

The Biden campaign said while there isn’t a foreign policy task force, they have been in touch with progressive foreign policy groups throughout the primary and continues to engage with them. They declined to identify the groups.

Aaron Walker, 26, of Chicago, Illinois is pictured.

Aaron Walker, 26, said right now, he doesn't think he is going to vote for Biden in November. Walker lives in Chicago and noted Illinois "has virtually no chance of going to Trump." He said he's going to focus on supporting "local leftists and oust any centrist Democrats being challenged by them."

Walker, who previously supported Sanders, noted that the movement is more than just the man.

"I love and respect the man, but the American left isn’t a cult of personality," Walker said. "Bernie isn’t the hero, the ideas are – and if he’s done fighting, we’re definitely not."

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Biden and Sanders have come to an agreement to have Sanders supporters represented at the Democratic National Convention, according to a memo released by the two campaigns. All delegates would be reallocated to Biden, per DNC rules. But the two campaigns have agreed that the delegate slots Sanders had earned will be filled with Sanders supporters.

“While Senator Sanders is no longer actively seeking the nomination, the Biden campaign feels strongly that it is in the best interest of the party and the effort to defeat Donald Trump in November to come to an agreement regarding these issues that will ensure representation of Sanders supporters and delegate candidates, both on the floor and in committees,” the memo states.

Biden has also tried to reach out to younger, more left-leaning voters through platforms and news organizations that cater to that bloc. This month, he gave an exclusive address about his economic platform on NowThis News, a progressive news site that is social media-focused. A recent interview with Yahoo was broadcast on TikTok.

Many progressive groups acknowledged Biden's outreach is a positive step forward, as well as some of his policy changes. Leaders of the groups noted there are many who say they will still vote for Biden, but that right now, that is the extent of support they are willing to give.

"Young people are really what make up the backbone ... and energy in Democratic campaigns,” Weber said.

“What I'm hearing from a lot of my peers is ‘yeah, some people aren't excited to vote but most of them are planning to vote.’ But people who might normally be knocking doors or making calls or things like that, I’m not hearing a lot of enthusiasm for that for Joe Biden at the moment.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders work together to bring progressives on board