How Buffs for Bernie Co-Founder Became Major Organizer for Hillary Clinton

The competition between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination was heated and emotional — and for some, it left bruises. After Clinton earned the Dems' official blessing by way of a process that critics saw as heavily tilted in her favor (an impression furthered by Wikileaks, which made scads of her minions' internal e-mails public), a number of Sanders followers publicly declared that they wouldn't cast a vote for her no matter what.

Hence the hashtags #BernieorBust and #NeverHillary.

Months of Donald Trump jaw-droppers later, is there still a considerable percentage of Sanders backers who either won't cast a ballot for Clinton or would rather sit out the election entirely?

Spencer Carnes doesn't think so. The co-founder of the CU Boulder organization Buffs for Bernie is now the regional campus organizing director for the Hillary Clinton campaign, and he says he's not seeing either lingering bitterness among young people who'd previously pulled for Sanders or an absence of zeal for the current candidate that could translate into non-participation.

"I think the Bernie Sanders campaign inspired young people to take part in the political process," Carnes says. "And that's transferred over to the general election — and to Hillary Clinton."

After his initial presidential vote in 2012, Carnes spent much of the 2014 cycle interning for No Labels, a political organization that works to find nonpartisan solutions to the nation's challenges. Then, in July 2015, he got deeply involved in the pro-Sanders movement.

"I started volunteering with a couple of colleagues at the CU Boulder campus, and we launched Buffs for Bernie in August," he says. "We brought Bernie Sanders to campus that October and were knocking on doors before the campaign really got started in Colorado. And for my last semester of college, I got a really cool opportunity to work as a field organizer."

Still, Carnes continues, "I knew at the end of the primary campaign that I would be voting for Democrats up and down the ticket. I was never one of the 'Bernie or Bust' people."

Over the past several months, he's definitely encountered some folks who were, he acknowledges, but he argues that they don't constitute a particularly large group.

"In speaking to those individuals during the general election, I think they've recognized their larger responsibility," he maintains. "Overwhelmingly, individuals who were 'Never Hillary' or 'Bernie or Bust' have seen Donald Trump, seen remarks of his that have come to light in recent weeks, and that's shown them that we absolutely have to stop Donald Trump. But they've also learned more about Hillary Clinton, and they've moved from 'Bernie or Bust' to a 'Let's make sure Hillary is our next president' mantra."

Likewise, he doubts that the Wikileaks revelations have hardened the resolve of those in the Sanders camp not to help Clinton.

"Most people look at Wikileaks and see that there wasn't really anything going on that we didn't already know about," Carnes says. "Of course, the Hillary Clinton campaign wanted to win this thing, and they worked hard to do it. And the other day, I saw a quote from Bernie Sanders saying that if the Bernie Sanders campaign's e-mails had been hacked, we'd be seeing similar things from them about her. So I don't think that's driving any 'Bernie or Bust' feelings."

Certainly not from his perspective, anyway. In his current role, Carnes points out, "my number-one focus is managing a team to make sure we're turning out millennials, and we're having conversations every single day about why we need to be voting for Democrats. When you look at the breakdown of the demographics, it's pretty clear millennials went for Bernie Sanders in the primaries. So we're making sure they're registered to vote and they have the information to do so. That's important even in Colorado, where voting is pretty accessible — but there are a lot of nuances young people need to know about. And we're reminding them that they have a responsibility to advocate for themselves. They're burdened with student debt, and there are so many other issues that are important to them and that are important to Hillary Clinton, too."

As for the alleged enthusiasm gap between what Sanders fans felt for Bernie and their current level of interest in Clinton's presidential aspirations, Carnes offers an alternative narrative.

"In my office the other night, two dozen young people were in there well past 10 p.m. making signs, doing data entry, doing whatever needs to be done. Every day, I meet a new volunteer who came from the Bernie Sanders campaign — who either volunteered for Bernie Sanders or caucused for him, or meant to. There are thousands of volunteers on college campuses, and the Democratic Party in Colorado has registered tens of thousands of voters over the span of four or five months. That really shows how young people see the power in their vote."

When it comes to conveying his passion, however, Carnes turns once again to the man who made him feel the Bern.

"Bernie Sanders says, 'It's better to show up than to give up,'" he says. "And I think that really resonates with young people. As millennials, we have a lot of hope, a lot of ambition, and if you talk to us, you'll see that time and again, we find it more important to show up than to give up."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts