Four years ago at this time, my “Bernie for President” yard sign had already been up for over six months. I remember very clearly the summer day when I stuck it on my front lawn, because someone stopped his car in front of the house soon afterward and rolled down the window. At first, I was worried that he was an irate Republican who was going to yell at me. But it turned out that all the guy wanted to do was to take a photo.
No wonder: My sign was a true oddity, the only one of its kind in this rural Republican town. But I needn’t have worried about hostility; I discovered that at least a couple of my Republican neighbors liked Bernie Sanders because they told me. A lot of rural Democrats liked him, too; Hillary Clinton won the New York state primary, but Bernie won almost every upstate county—including mine.
I mention all this because I suddenly realized that it’s only a few weeks until the April 28 New York state primary, which the latest poll shows Sanders winning (and running strongest among upstate voters), but I still haven’t made up my mind whom to support. Not only have I not posted a yard sign, but I also don’t even have a candidate. And in talks with local Democratic acquaintances, I’ve discovered that they are mostly in the same boat. Perhaps that’s because there is an abundance of riches in terms of the candidates, but I suspect it’s a lack of intense devotion to any of them. And that makes me nervous.
I’m not alone. Bennett Wine, a Democratic member of the town board of Lexington, an even smaller town than mine, says he sees a similar lack of political discussion and involvement among the Democrats he knows. Four years ago, says Wine, “People were fairly well-decided” at this point. But this time around, even people who were passionate about Bernie Sanders in 2016 are less so, he says. The primary is “not something people are discussing.”
Wine contrasts the current lack of energy with the mood two years ago when local Democrats were already feverishly active in both state and federal campaigns. “It started the day after Trump won,” he says. This year, he says, “There’s nothing like that kind of enthusiasm.”
Mark Vian, who lives in yet another nearby small town, and who is one of the official New York state slate of Sanders delegates, isn’t ready to concede Wine’s point. He thinks online discussions and fundraising are increasingly taking the place of the kind of rallies and fund-raising parties that were campaign staples as recently as four years ago. But he agrees that there’s a lot less talk about politics this year. “Quite a few progressives I know are uncertain and even quite a few centrists,” he says.
This uncertainty extends to young people as well. Taylor Coloton, 26, who is the president of the New York Young Democrats’ Greene County chapter (currently at seven members, which I consider quite impressive), says that in 2016 she was a Bernie Sanders supporter. This time, however, she’s still shopping around, as are many of the other chapter presidents she talks with during a monthly statewide phone call. Sanders is “definitely” one of her top choices, she says, but she’s more interested in someone who’s not as far left. Why? “I don’t know; he’s just not clicking with me,” she says.
One surprising Sanders supporter I talked to is Denny Bonavita, a retired small-town newspaper editor. “The Democratic primary looks like the Republicans in 2016 but without Trump,” Bonavita jokes, telling me that he’s been a Republican for most of his life but has changed his registration twice, in 2016 and this year, in order to vote for Sanders. “At least he’s honest,” Bonavita says. “And he hasn’t changed his mind in 40 years.”
Bonavita lives west of here, not far over the Pennsylvania line, but his county could as easily be my own: it’s rural, Republican, went for Sanders over Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary and overwhelmingly for Trump in the general election. And he has no doubt that it will go for Trump again. “The people who voted for Trump were voting against the establishment,” he says, and that sentiment hasn’t changed. Moreover, he notes, “The economy’s doing well and people are going to vote their pocketbooks.”
His predictions about Trump are depressing enough, but added to the lack of passionate engagement that I’m picking up on around here, it’s enough to make me wonder what lies ahead. No matter who wins the Democratic nomination, it will take a massive national get-out-the-vote effort to propel the party nominee into the White House.
That doesn’t mean I’m about to give up hope. There’s plenty of time yet for surprises, and, just in case it’s needed, my “Bernie for President” yard sign is still where I stored it in the barn.