SANTA MONICA, Calif.—It was impossible to walk through the crowd of Bernie Sanders supporters who packed an airplane hangar here Tuesday night without noticing the feelings of disenfranchisement and disgust that consumed them.
As far as they were concerned, the Democratic primary was rigged against Sanders from the very start to favor Hillary Clinton.
They believed this to the end. And on the last major primary night of the campaign, it did appear to be the end: Sanders vowed to fight on to the convention, but Clinton, who won 3.7 million more primary votes than Sanders, was basking in becoming the first woman to clinch a major-party presidential nomination.
The main culprit in the minds of Sanders supporters was the media—especially The Associated Press, which was first to report that Clinton had secured enough support from the party insiders known as superdelegates to be the presumptive nominee.
“It was absurd. Unfair isn’t a strong enough word,” Dutch Merrick, 46, told me. “If I was a pessimistic person, I would say it was rigging because, for a neutral press, they can’t call anything like that until there is even a first ballot cast. It’s impossible. It smacks of steering the electorate.”
While Merrick stopped short of saying the primary was rigged, plenty of Sanders supporters I spoke with had no qualms about saying exactly that.
A woman named Saku EE questioned whether there had been voter fraud in the California primary, which Clinton won by 55–43%, far better than expectations.
If there was, she said, “I will not be voting for Hillary Clinton.” She said she might vote for the Green Party candidate instead.
She was hardly alone. I couldn’t find one Sanders supporter who didn’t feel disenfranchised by the primary process. Lyn Etcetera was walking around with floor with a large sign that read, “Bernie Please Run Independent.”
When I asked him whether he would support Clinton if she is officially named the nominee at the Democratic National Convention, next month in Philadelphia, he said her victories were nothing more than a Clinton family overthrow of the will of the people, who he feels were silenced.
“This is Bill Clinton’s third-term coup attempt, and they do not deserve to be president,” Etcetera, 65, told me.
Of course, Clinton supporters were upset in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama won the democratic primary. But Tuesday night felt different. Nearly eight years ago, Clinton supporters felt disappointed, but disenfranchised would have been a stretch.
By contrast, the people who gathered in Santa Monica truly believed they were perceived as a nuisance to the Democratic political machine, which they feel Democratic chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz runs like an exclusive country club.
Sanders supporters have argued that the party's use of superdelegates in its nominating process is undemocratic. (Clinton won a majority of pledged delegates, those awarded in primaries and caucuses, and has the support of the vast majority of superdelegates.)
Sanders supporters have also complained that Schultz arranged too few Democratic primary debates and scheduled them when TV audiences would be small. They also argue that more Democratic primaries should be open, not restricted to registered Democrats.
And they sense that they are viewed as tree-hugging, electric car-driving, socialist-sympathizing Bernie crazies who refused to accept what was good for them: Hillary Clinton.
It was a mostly white crowd, but there was plenty of ethnic diversity among them, and those people, too, articulated a political philosophy they believed was never given an opportunity to be heard during the primary season.
Marcus Hamm, who is black, said he would not support Clinton in the general election because of how he feels the party has treated him and the rest of Sanders’ supporters.
“It’s impossible for me to support Hillary Clinton not only because of her, but because of the Democratic Party, because of this entire fraudulent election,” Mann, 38, told me. “I’m pretty much disenchanted and disenfranchised from this whole political process, from being so supportive of trying to see a fair election take place. It’s really a corporatocracy. It’s not a democracy.”
There was at least one person who felt better about it. Iann Williams said she’d have no problem voting for Clinton during the general election.
“Of course I would,” Williams, 36, said. “She’s definitely been in office. She’s worked with Obama’s administration. She has qualifications. So, my pick, no matter what. In an ideal world, I would love for it to be Hillary and Bernie. Vice president, either way. And maybe get Elizabeth Warren in there somewhere.”
That was as glowing an endorsement of Clinton as I heard all night. Most people said they felt like the former secretary of state cheated them.
And, as far as many Sanders supporters were concerned, mainstream media has been nothing more than her paid PR machine. When primary results were broadcasted on a large TV screen that didn’t favor their candidate, supporters booed. If CNN aired preliminary results from states like California that showed Sanders was behind, they shouted, “CNN sucks! CNN sucks!”
MSNBC was not spared, either. As Chuck Todd reported that Sanders would meet with President Barack Obama on Thursday, they shouted, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”
One of the only few bright moments came when states like Montana were called for Sanders. Then there was former Ohio state Sen. and Sanders supporter Nina Turner. Onlookers roared with joy when they saw her on the big screen during an MSNBC interview. Only Sanders received louder applause.
Eventually, after it was clear it was not going to be Sanders’ night, the media broadcasts were switched off and replaced with photos of the senator on the campaign trail. It was a merciful move. Why further antagonize people with bad news they are struggling to process from media outlets they view with deep suspicion?
I refuse to believe Sanders was not given a fair shot to win. And Barack Obama, a black man from Chicago, faced far more unfair scrutiny than Sanders has come close to facing. Sanders complains about not getting enough media attention, but the racism Obama faced from the media was enough to break any candidate.
But whatever your personal opinion about Sanders’ supporters, it is important to understand they genuinely feel mistreated.
Better candidates tend to win elections, and that was what Obama did. Sanders, despite his incredible run, could not. Great candidates lose all the time and Sanders is no different. But one thing I would never do is impugn the sincerity of his supporters.
Campaigns are scrappy, contentious and exhausting, and the pain in that hangar was real.
Barring something historically unprecedented, Sanders will not be the party’s nominee. The best he can do is rally his supporters to help defeat presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, which he vowed to do last night in what felt like the prelude to a concession speech.
That, though, would mean rallying them behind Clinton, a thought few people I spoke with could fathom.
Melissa Baldridge is struggling with what to make of her options now. She said whether she votes for Clinton would depend on whom she chooses as her VP. The most appealing choice would be Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has expressed little public interest in the role.
Or, even better, a ticket featuring Sanders and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, a hope I heard throughout the night. Baldridge, 39, is just waiting on what Sanders does next. What she does feel for certain is that California, and ultimately, the nomination, went to Clinton because she and the media colluded to make it so.
“(The media) called it prematurely, which results in voter suppression and voters feeling disheartened and disenfranchised and not wanting to participate and staying home when the AP and the rest of the mainstream media says she’s the winner,” Baldridge said.
“So the media are in the pockets of the Clintons. The Clintons are in the pockets of the media. She is their golden child. They wanted her to win. They made sure the way that they spun every news story that she would win. But despite all of that, no one can deny the movement the power the energy, the inspiration that Bernie Sanders has brought. And I hope he continues to keep people involved.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.