As the Democratic primary drew to its conclusion, a flurry of Students for Bernie college organizations made clear where they stood: There was no way they could vote for Joe Biden. If Sanders wasn’t the nominee, they planned to either sit out the fall election or vote third party.
But as coronavirus deaths mount and Donald Trump strikes a law-and-order pose against the protests sweeping the nation, many of the leaders of those groups are rethinking their hard-line position. And faced with a choice between a candidate they distrust due to his lack of progressive bona fides, or ushering in the second term of an incumbent they loathe, more than a few leftist college student leaders are learning to live with Biden.
“In recent weeks, it’s become pretty clear that Trump is willing to crack down on free speech, and so it’s definitely making me lean more toward Biden now,” said Harry Feldman, a Georgia Tech senior and co-chair of the school’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, who was considering voting third party in Georgia.
The last straws, Feldman said, were Trump’s threats to put down unrest with military force and his “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” tweet.
Amira Chowdhury, co-director of a left-wing University of Pennsylvania group that vowed in late March it “will never endorse, nor support Joe Biden,” has also come around on the former vice president. She attributed it to what she called Trump’s failure of leadership, bigotry and racism in recent weeks and her role as a voter in a swing state that Trump captured by just over 44,000 votes in 2016.
“With a heavy heart, and with great anger and frustration, and with great rage towards the Democratic establishment, I will vote for Biden,” said Chowdhury, whose Penn for Bernie group is now known as Penn Justice Democrats.
The 77-year-old Biden still has a ways to go with all younger voters, a demographic cohort he struggled to gain traction with during the primary season. Chowdhury’s organization, for example, has declined to formally support the presumptive Democratic nominee.
But recent polling suggests that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his response to the George Floyd killing and subsequent protests have softened the resistance to Biden among younger voters.
In early April, according to POLITICO/Morning Consult polling, Biden had the support of 48.5 percent of voters between the ages of 18 to 29. By early June, that percentage had jumped to 53 percent.
A Global Strategy Group/NextGen America poll of young voters also saw support for Biden spike after the first wave of protests. Biden’s advantage over Trump among 18-to-34-year-olds increased from 18-points between May 20 and May 23, to 27 points between May 29 to June 3.
Andrew Baumann, senior vice president of Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm, said Trump’s polarizing rhetoric on racial justice pushed an important issue for young voters to the forefront of their voting calculus.
“It is the issue where they already saw the biggest distinction between the candidates, because they understand that Trump is a racist who has no interest in changing and tackling systemic racism in this country,” Baumann, who oversaw the report’s youth voter research, said. “But it’s also put a rocket booster on that. Trump’s response has made it even more clear how dangerous he is to them.”
Baumann said he’s seen qualitative and quantitative evidence that young voters are shifting toward Biden due to Trump’s handling of the protests — even in cases where their opinion of Biden hasn’t drastically changed.
Hayley Mon Goy, a Florida State University junior who supported Sanders in the Democratic primary, agreed that Trump’s response to the anti-racism and police brutality protests solidified her decision to vote for Biden, even though he was far from her first choice.
“Looking at Trump now, he’s really shown his true colors in how he’s handling the situation in the country, not only with coronavirus, but with all the protests,” Mon Goy said. “As a progressive, even though people may not love Biden, it’s pushing them towards voting for him.”
Other college activists say they are looking harder at Biden because they are confident he could handle the Covid-19 crisis better than Trump.
“The coronavirus pandemic has definitely made me feel that Biden would be a more responsible leader in office,” said Bhargav Tata, founder of Georgia State for Bernie. “But with regards to the massive protests, one thing that does give me pause is Joe Biden’s history with racism.”
Tata, who is transferring to New York University this fall but will cast his ballot in Georgia, said he is “60 percent” sure he will vote for Biden.
Pointing to Biden’s adoption of parts of Sanders’ free college plan, as well as Biden’s gun safety efforts and clean energy pledges, Students for Biden coordinator Lubna Sebastian said leftist college students can find a home in the Biden camp.
“It’s really important to realize that a lot of the policies that Joe is talking about, and his vision for America, is very progressive,” Sebastian said.
There are still quite a few college Sanders supporters who remain unconvinced.
“Right at the time [Sanders dropped out], I was very up in the air of whether or not I would vote for Joe Biden,” said Creighton University sophomore Joey Rougas. “But seeing Joe Biden’s response to first the coronavirus pandemic, and then his response to the recent protests around police brutality, I don’t think that I’m going to vote for him because I think his response has been very lackluster.”
Esau Delgado, a University of Michigan junior who was a leader of his school’s Students for Bernie chapter, is another student who says he recently shifted away from voting for Biden. He pointed to the Tara Reade sexual assault allegation as cause for his suspicion of Biden.
“But on the other hand, I know that I need to do my part and obviously, Joe Biden for me is better than Donald Trump,” Delgado said, noting he would likely make up his mind on Election Day.