Three People Hold Key to Uniting the Democrats Behind the Party’s Nominee

President Barack Obama speaks in Hanover, Germany April 24. The president hasn't yet endorsed a candidate in the U.S. presidential election.

By LAURA MECKLER – – – –

With her party’s presidential nomination in sight, Hillary Clinton began wooing Bernie Sanders supporters to her campaign in earnest Tuesday night. But in the weeks to come, she will rely on others to finish much of the work of uniting Democrats.

Three people in particular are likely to hold the key, for altogether different reasons: Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Mr. Sanders.

The effort begins with Mrs. Clinton, who devoted a large chunk of her victory speech Tuesday to an explanation of what unites Democrats after months of talk about their divisions. Her remarks were also notable for what she didn’t say: Not a word of complaint or critique of Mr. Sanders.

“I applaud Sen. Sanders and his millions of supporters for challenging us to get unaccountable money out of our politics and to put greater emphasis to closing the gap of inequality,” she said. “And I know together we will get that done.”

But Mrs. Clinton and her staff are walking a narrow path: they want to welcome Sanders supporters without looking like they are trying to drive the Vermont senator out of the race before he is ready to go. At the same time, the Clinton campaign is eager to turn its attention to the general election. On Tuesday night, the campaign quickly cut a video highlighting Mr. Trump’s comment at a press conference that night that Mrs. Clinton wouldn’t get 5% of the vote if she were a man.

“Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5% of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the women’s card,” Mr. Trump said.

So how does the Democratic Party come together? Interviews with Clinton campaign officials and other senior Democrats suggest three people will be essential.

President Barack Obama: Mr. Obama, who remains enormously popular inside the Democratic Party, had considered making an endorsement during the Democratic primary—presumably for Mrs. Clinton—but he held off once it became apparent that she would be able to win without him.

That neutrality gives him particular credibility now to try and unite Democrats around a nominee, and Clinton allies say he will be critical, particularly with young people who have flocked to Mr. Sanders’s side and are essential for the future of the Democratic Party.

Tom Nides, who was a top deputy to Mrs. Clinton at the State Department and is now a senior executive at Morgan Stanley, said that with Mr. Obama’s active support, Mrs. Clinton could reach Obama-level support from young voters, despite her poor showing with them during the primaries.

“Barack Obama will be the unifying voice,” he said.

The president appears up for the challenge. “My most important role,” he said last month, “will be to make sure that after primaries [are] done I’m bringing everybody together so that we focus on winning the general election.”

A handful of other popular Democrats also could be helpful, notably Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who haven’t made an endorsement.

Donald Trump: Virtually every Democrat in politics predicts that if Mr. Trump is the Republican nominee, he will serve as the great unifier. They argue that no Democrat—including Sanders and Clinton supporters—could favor Mr. Trump, who has insulted women, Muslims, Mexicans, the disabled and others and is widely viewed by Democrats as unqualified for the job.

“We’re facing one of the greatest unifying forces in American politics. His name is Donald Trump,” said Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis, who is unaffiliated in the primary. “That’s how we’ll come together.”

Mr. Trump will be particularly helpful driving young people to Mrs. Clinton, said John Della Volpe, who studies young voters at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. His polling finds that Mrs. Clinton is seen as unfavorable by 53% of voters ages 18-29; Mr. Trump is seen unfavorably by 74% of young voters.

Mr. Della Volpe said he once thought Republicans could make inroads with young voters in this election. No more. “Donald Trump has completely washed away that opportunity,” he said.

Bernie Sanders: During a town-hall-style meeting this week, Mrs. Clinton spoke passionately about how she expects Mr. Sanders to bring his supporters around to her, just as she worked to bring her supporters around to Mr. Obama after he won their 2008 nomination contest.

“I spent an enormous amount of time convincing my supporters to support him. And I’m happy to say the vast majority did,” she said on MSNBC. “That is what I think one does. That is certainly what I did and I hope that we will see the same this year.”

Clinton aides like to quote Mr. Sanders’s oft-made promise to do whatever he can to keep a Republican from winning the White House. In their minds, that starts with laying off the woman who is near-certain to be the Democratic nominee.

Mr. Sanders has sent mixed signals. On MSNBC, he said that Mrs. Clinton needs to earn his supporters by adopting all sorts of positions she doesn’t hold, such as imposing a carbon tax and backing a single-payer health program. On Tuesday night, after it was clear he had won just one of five states, he issued a statement in which he promised to continue to fight for progressive causes.

“This campaign is going to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with as many delegates as possible to fight for a progressive party platform,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton’s top advisers and many others in the party say her biggest mistake would be trying to push him out of the race before he is ready.

“Sanders should stay in the race until the end. He has earned that right and his supporters in the remaining states deserve the opportunity to vote for him,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior aide during both of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaigns.

But, Mr. Pfeiffer said, pushing his campaign to the convention, if she has the nomination wrapped up, makes no sense. “That would be pointless and dishonest to his supporters, as well as a great gift to Donald Trump,” he said.

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