NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — Anyone driving into Bernie Sanders’s rally here, anyone with a radio tuned to ABC News, could hear the low-key voice of Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson. In 60-second radio spots, the former governor of New Mexico introduces himself as a pragmatist who, like most voters, resented a presidential choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
“Our economic challenges will be conquered not by force, but by cooperation and mutual respect,” Johnson says in one of the ads. “For the independent majority of Americans who feel as I do, I say: Why wait one more day?”
At the rally itself, Sanders continued making the pitch he’s been honing since he returned to the campaign trail: This isn’t a year to vote third party. Mentioning Clinton’s name sparingly, Sanders told several hundred voters — many still wearing gear from the Democratic primary — that their votes could stop the election of a Republican “who thinks climate change is a hoax.”
Sanders, who was the most prominent independent in American politics even before his run, is gradually embracing a role as a third-party critic, a spoiler of the spoilers. As Democrats contemplate ways to tamp down a protest vote for Johnson, or for the Green Party’s Jill Stein, Sanders is already arguing that anyone who voted for him would set the movement back by voting against Clinton. In an interview after the rally — the first in a three-state weekend tour for Democratic candidates — Sanders said that Democrats and the media need to focus on Clinton’s actual policies more than they have been, in a campaign dominated by back-and-forths about Trump’s gaffes.
“This is not the time for a protest vote, in terms of a presidential campaign,” Sanders said. “I ran as a third-party candidate. I’m the longest-serving independent in the history of the United States Congress. I know more about third-party politics than anyone else in the Congress, okay? And if people want to run as third-party candidates, God bless them! Run for Congress. Run for governor. Run for state legislature. When we’re talking about president of the United States, in my own personal view, this is not time for a protest vote. This is time to elect Hillary Clinton and then work after the election to mobilize millions of people to make sure she can be the most progressive president she can be.”
The journey from Clinton primary foe to Clinton surrogate has been awkward for Sanders. At high-profile moments during the Democratic National Convention, including an address to his delegates, he mentioned his endorsement near the top of his remarks and was blown back by jeers and boos. Since then, Sanders has tucked his endorsement later in his speeches, after rundowns of exactly what concessions his campaign got from the Democratic Party, and what a Trump presidency would undo.
That spoonful-of-sugar approach has led to less obvious backlash; it’s also truer to Sanders’s long-term goals. His campaign performed most strongly in “open” primaries and caucuses, where independent voters could play without registering as Democrats. He did worse than expected in New York, and cited the state’s onerous registration standards, which require voters to be members of a party for six months before voting in their primaries. The state’s Working Families Party, which endorsed and organized for Sanders, found itself in a bind.
In the run-up to the Democratic convention, Sanders unsuccessfully lobbied for the party to open all of its primaries to all voters. Since then, he has confirmed that he will seek reelection as an independent. And on Thursday night, Sanders keynoted the 18th annual Working Families Party gala, mentioning Clinton’s name just twice in the context of his “political revolution.” One of those times, Sanders beseeched anyone who backed Clinton “to vote for her on the Working Families Party line.”
New York’s unique “fusion” laws, which allow candidates to seek multiple party nominations and aggregate their votes toward a winning total, give Sanders the opportunity to back Clinton while growing a force outside the Democratic Party. In two-dozen interviews at the New Paltz rally, four voters said they had contemplated voting for a third party but were rethinking that after polls showed Trump gaining ground.
Eli Campbell, 21, arrived at the rally with a photoshopped portrait of Trump and Clinton wearing crowns in front of the White House. (The original photo was taken at Trump’s wedding to his third and current wife, Melania, which Clinton attended.) “People like me have been told that it doesn’t matter if we want a world that works,” said Campbell, as other voters, many from the nearby university, snapped photos. “We have to wait for it.”
Campbell said he was leaning toward supporting Stein, but he, too, had seen polling that suggested Trump might win the presidency. If it seemed that his vote would be decisive, Campbell admitted that he could vote for Clinton.
“Bernie pushed her a lot further left than she wanted to go,” said Campbell. “I mean, if it’s close, I think I’ll vote for the lesser evil.”