The first night of the 2016 DNC felt like whirlwind of excitement, anxiety, and anticipation. The theme was unity.
Everyone inside the Wells Fargo Center knew exactly the game plan: Smooth the way to a Hillary Clinton nomination, gently keep up appearances, and work to mend the rift the primary had exposed—especially in light of the recent revelations from the latest DNC email leak which prompted the chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to resign. She did not even gavel in.
The stakes were particularly high for the evening as statistician and election guru, Nate Silver, had, earlier that day, released an article predicting that if the election were held immediately Donald Trump would have a 57.5 percent chance of winning against Clinton—though he is not favored long term.
Through platitudes about togetherness, the line up of noteworthy speakers—including Sen. Al Franken, former Rep. Barney Frank, Sarah Silverman, First Lady Michelle Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and even Sen. Bernie Sanders—each attempted to use Trump as a unifying enemy. The message was clear: The GOP wants to divide using fear, and Democrats cannot let that happen—so they must unite behind Clinton out of fear.
Despite best efforts, however, this proved a hard sell to the angry Bernie delegates.
Earlier in the day, Bernie Sanders had, himself, been booed loudly for trying to get his supporters on board with Clinton. The convention was no different, despite his pleas. Boos were audible every time a speaker said anything to the effect supporting Clinton for president. Many seemed caught off guard, or shaken. It was very clear that this was not the reaction they had expected or planned for. An exasperated Sarah Silverman even went so far as to call the ‘Bernie Or Bust’ shouts “ridiculous.”
Nobody could quell the delegates. Elizabeth Warren, who many saw as a unifier, was met with resounding protestations and boos when she praised Clinton and Tim Kaine. Sanders was, once again, unable to bring his supporters over.
Outside the convention center several different “Bernie Or Bust” groups marched four miles in blistering heat to send a message challenging the unity narrative. Behind multiple iron fences, the group’s converged on FDR Park, across from the convention center, where they staged a protest.
The Democratic Party’s dirty laundry—its disunity—was put on display for the world to see.
Inside the convention hall, I was able to ask a number of delegates from both camps what they expected to happen in November as far as party unity was concerned, and their responses depended entirely on which candidate they were supporting.
Most Sanders delegates I spoke with told me there was absolutely no way the party would reunite in November. I heard “Never Hillary” more times than I can count.
“They’re handing power to the Republicans,” Jason Eno, a Hawaii delegate said of the fact that the party was on the verge of nominating Clinton. “It’s very difficult for us to vote for Hillary because they’ve [the DNC] been lying to us, and cheating the whole time!”
On the other side, Clinton delegates hardly seemed concerned about the Sanders supporters balking, instead predicting a coming together of both sides. “Today is about unity,” one delegate told me, beaming with optimism. “This whole democratic process has been about bringing the party back together.”
Another Clinton delegate, Dow Constantine of Washington, in a very matter-of-fact tone, offered, “[t]his is what democracy does look like. At this point eight years ago there were a whole bunch of Hillary Clinton supporters saying they would not support Barack Obama. The fact is, the way our constitution is set up is we end up having to make a choice that does not perfectly fit every point of your personal ideology, and we’ve all had to do that throughout time.”
“It’s been a long primary season,” Chris Pappas, a Clinton delegate from New Hampshire, opined. “But we’re at the point where there have been a number of developments that are really bringing this party together—Donald Trump on the other side of the equation is really motivating people to get out and work hard.”
Still, many Sanders supporters have not been moved by the threat a Trump presidency in the same way they were moved by their candidates’ calls for massive economic and political overhaul. These voters are not giving up on their vision for a better country, even if it means protest votes.
“I think right now, what we’re experiencing is a split between progressive Democrats and moderate Democrats,” Kristi Lara, a Bernie delegate from Texas, told me. “She [Hillary Clinton] hasn’t focused on economic issues, so it will be a momentous climb for her to win over those [Bernie Or Bust] voters because she’s been silent.”
Time will ultimately tell what happens next, but one thing we can count on is a raucous convention with plenty of unrest.