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Email hack injects drama, discord into first night of Democratic National Convention

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., waves as he walks off the stage after checking out the podium before the start of the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Monday, July 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The Democratic National Convention got off to a rocky start Monday, with signs of passionate division emerging hours before the event was even gaveled into session.

In the wake of the release of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee that indicate party officials favored former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders, outgoing chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz got a hostile response from Florida delegates Monday morning.

Hours later, Sanders addressed a crowd of his delegates.

“We have got to elect Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine,” he said, calling Republican nominee Donald Trump “a bully and a demagogue.”

The crowd booed the endorsement and launched into chants of “We want Bernie!”

“Trump is a danger for the future our country and must be defeated, and I intend to do everything I can to see that he is defeated,” Sanders said, trying to justify his support for establishment favorite Clinton to those who believed in his political revolution.

Wasserman Schultz decided not to gavel in the convention on Monday afternoon, saving Democrats one potentially difficult scene, but early speakers were still frequently interrupted by chants supporting Sanders. Some delegates reportedly adopted the Republican refrain of “Lock her up!”

On Monday afternoon, Sanders sent a text to supporters urging them to remain calm and stop booing. He will be taking the stage later himself as one of the day’s big primetime speakers.

After Sen. Ted Cruz upended the Republican National Convention last week by refusing to endorse Trump in his address, Sanders finds himself in the similar position of speaking at his former opponent’s convention. Political experts expect the Vermont senator to stand by his support for Clinton on the convention stage, though.

There are many reasons for this. Unlike Cruz, Sanders had endorsed his primary opponent ahead of the convention, and even in interviews Sunday after the email revelations, he has shown no indication that his support is wavering.

“I saw him on the Sunday shows yesterday,” said Gary Nordlinger, a political consultant and an adjunct George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. “He is unequivocal in his support for Hillary and his opposition to Donald Trump.”

“Unlike the debacle at the GOP Convention last week… Sanders has already endorsed Clinton and will use his speech tonight to tell the American people why it is so critical that she is our next president,” said Matt McDermott, a senior analyst at Whitman Insight Strategies.

“I would be stupefied if he did not enthusiastically endorse the Democratic ticket,” said Glenn Altschuler, Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

Rather than dwell on the emails or his belief that the system was rigged against him, Sanders is more likely to use his speech Monday night to promote the issues that matter to him and acknowledge that there is no real alternative to Clinton left for progressives.

“We will see Sen. Sanders in a primetime address make a full-throated, passionate case for the issues he fought so hard for in this primary campaign,” McDermott said, “and why Hillary Clinton is the only person in this election that can make these ideas a reality.”

Nordlinger expects Sanders’ words Monday night to echo his stump speech.

“I think he does his usual firebrand-style populist speech and then concludes Hillary is the best person to enact it and Donald Trump is not,” he said.

However, Altschuler suggested Sanders does need to address the controversy because his supporters are so angry about it.

“I think he does need to thread a needle and that is find a way to speak about the DNC conspiracy so as to acknowledge it to his supporters who are very upset about it,” he said, “while at the same time not dwelling on it in a way that will stoke their anger even further and lead them either to contemplate voting for Jill Stein or not voting at all.”

“This issue may reduce the turnout for Hillary Clinton,” he warned. “What it does for sure is make Bernie Sanders more important to Secretary Clinton moving forward.”

Even if Sanders does not mention the scandal directly, whatever he says may be interpreted by some as response to it.

“It does change the context of things and it does mean that people will parse every participle for its degree of enthusiasm for the ticket,” Altschuler said.

Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon told CNN Monday that the Clinton team has no desire to “stage manage” Sanders.

“We have a lot of confidence that he’s going to talk about the high stakes of the election and he’s going to make the case for Hillary Clinton,” Fallon said.

The continued hostility of some Sanders supporters to the idea of supporting Clinton demonstrates the challenge the senator faces with his speech.

“It needs to electrify both the delegates and the people watching at home. He has that passion among his supporters that Hillary lacks and he’s got to try to instill some passion for Hillary,” Nordlinger said.

Polls show Trump has received a bounce in support after last week’s Republican convention, taking the lead in a new CNN/ORC poll and tied with Clinton in a CBS News poll. In order to regain the ground she has lost, Nordlinger said Clinton now must earn a larger-than-average bounce herself.

“All the polling that came out today shows Donald Trump had a very successful convention,” he said.

The Cruz gambit has been praised as an act of courage by many of Trump’s remaining conservative critics, but it was not well received by rank-and-file Republicans. The CNN/ORC poll showed Cruz’s favorability within the GOP has dropped nearly 30 points post-convention, one more reason for Sanders not to take that route.

Nordlinger observed that there are two positive things that may come out of the DNC email scandal. One is that Sanders is getting something he wants in Wasserman Schultz stepping down. Also, “it at least creates a little bit of drama in what was going to be a very vanilla ice cream program” at the convention.

At the same time, it may have rejuvenated the waning anti-Clinton movement within the party.

The loudest pro-Sanders voices may not represent a large percentage of voters, though. Despite the crowds of protesters marching through the streets of Philadelphia, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that 90 percent of Sanders supporters plan to vote for Clinton.

McDermott argued that some residual tension is common at this point in the process. He noted that a large contingent of Clinton supporters were still withholding support from Barack Obama prior to the convention in 2008.

“We have seen a faster coalition of the Democratic base this year compared to 2008, but it's certainly true that a key to this convention will be unifying holdout Sanders supporters, and that'll start with Sanders' speech tonight,” he said.

For him, the protests reflect the excitement and intensity of the base that could drive Democratic turnout in November if Sanders can bring them on board.

“Frankly, gatherings like this are healthy, and they speak to the enthusiasm among the Democratic base to fight for a progressive ticket this November,” McDermott said. “As Bernie Sanders himself has said, the Democratic Party platform this year is the most progressive in history, thanks to input from both supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.”

Ultimately, Nordlinger said, Sanders’ speech will carry more weight than a small faction of protesters, unless Philadelphia descends into widespread chaos and rioting like Chicago in 1968. That seems unlikely with the security measures in place.

“If Sanders comes out with a very strong endorsement of the Clinton-Kaine ticket, then you’ve got it from the horse’s mouth,” he said.

“If the protests are peaceful, as they were at the Republican convention, then I don’t think that they will have an enduring impact,” Altschuler said. “If there are clashes and, god forbid, arrests or violence, that will not bode well for the Democrats.”

Another variable is whether additional emails get released this week that drag the story out or present new evidence of the DNC tilting the primaries against Sanders.

“Right now, this campaign has more twists and turns than a colonoscopy,” Altschuler said.

More than 40 percent of delegates are Sanders supporters, so he predicted there could be some vocal reaction to speeches from the floor. He cautioned against interpreting that as indicative of widespread discontent with Clinton as the nominee among Democratic voters.

“The party itself is likely to more unified, perhaps by a considerable margin, than the Republicans,” he said.

Much as opposition to Clinton coalesced Republicans around Trump last week, experts say the desire to defeat Trump will unite Democrats unless Sanders deviates wildly from what he is expected to say on the convention stage.

“As long as Sen. Sanders is happy, it’ll be a happy convention,” Nordlinger said.

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