To thunderous applause and with a hint of resignation, Hillary Clinton stood on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and motioned for the approval of Barack Obama as the party’s nominee by acclamation.
Meanwhile, a few hundred feet from the Pepsi Center in Denver, a small but likewise uproarious group held protest signs. These weren’t Republicans, but Democrats, furious that it was Clinton nominating Obama and not the other way around.
The PUMAs—which, depending on the temperament of the person asked, stood for People United Means Action or, more likely, Party Unity My Ass—were a group of disillusioned, mostly Democratic voters who protested the nomination of then-Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic Party nominee in 2008. In their view, party leadership machinations (remember the "super delegates?") robbed Clinton of the nomination.
In the weeks between Obama surpassing the delegate threshold and his formal nomination at the convention, these PUMAs appeared dozens of times on cable news to defend Clinton and to promise mischief at the nominating convention and in the general election. Their anger epitomized a wider unrest that has been mostly forgotten as Obama went on to win two general elections: In the days before the convention, only 47 percent of Clinton supporters said they were certain to vote for Obama.
In the years since, it seems, some of the PUMAs—once Hillary loyalists to the core—remain unwed to the idea of supporting Clinton in 2016. Others remain so angry at how the party treated her in 2008 they won't consider voting for a Democrat in 2016—not even for Clinton.
Will Bower was closest thing the PUMAs had to an official spokesman. After setting up a Facebook group to organize disaffected Clinton supporters, he became a darling of cable news producers and made regular appearances to speak on behalf of disgruntled Hillary voters through the fall. A lifelong Democrat, Bower recounts stints as a young volunteer for the Dukakis campaign and as a protester in 2000 after the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision, as well as his career as a party activist in Washington. “My Democratic credentials were unassailable,” he says.
For years, Bower had been increasingly critical of what he says is an undemocractic party nomination process: Iowa's caucus is given disproportionate influence in the primaries thanks to its spot on the calendar, and Iowa's caucuses, which require a larger investment of time and effort than traditional voting, exclude people who have to work or care for a family. (In January 2008, Obama, at that time still a relative upstart, coasted to a win in Iowa while Clinton focused her campaign in, and won, New Hampshire.) Bower's final break from the party came on May 31, 2008, after Democratic leadership moved to strip half of the delegates from Michigan and Florida in retaliation for those states moving their primaries to earlier dates. Clinton had won both large states; losing those delegates all but sealed the nomination for Obama. Clinton supporters saw the decision by the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee as an act of betrayal. Two days later, the term PUMA was born.
“It was life-changing, it was dramatic, it was tumultuous,” Bower says. “I was never a Republican before 2008, I never considered myself a Republican. But I started going to Log Cabin meetings.”
His flirtation with the GOP was sincere but brief. He pointed to the summer 2012 Chick-fil-A brouhaha, when conservatives applauded the fast-food company's owners for condemning same-sex marriage, as a moment when he realized he had no place in the Republican Party. Still, he doesn’t consider himself as a Democrat, either. “I just consider myself non-denominational,” he says. For now, he says, he's supporting Hillary, if only provisionally. “If another Democratic candidate declares, I’ll listen to them,” he says. “I'm going to listen to these first few debates.”
Amy Goldman, an early PUMA currently living in New Jersey, is even more reserved. “If she had not gone into the administration, I would be all-in,” she says, citing her disappointment in Clinton’s performance as Obama's first Secretary of State. “Would I vote for her? It remains to be seen.”
Goldman was on the very first conference call with a half-dozen other PUMAs the day after the Rules and Bylaws Committee decision, and helped create and maintain some of the largest Facebook groups that popped up in the immediate aftermath. Like Bower, Goldman’s main objection was with the primary system itself.
“For me it was about the process, adhering to the process,” she says. “We were adamant that it was wrong, and we had to get out there and tell people it was wrong.”
To understand why PUMAs are still sour all these years later, it's worth revisiting the salient details of the 2008 primary. Michigan and Florida both decided in late 2007 that they would hold their primaries in January, in clear defiance of the DNC's rules on when state parties could schedule their elections. In a show of support, all of the top-tier candidates, including Obama and Clinton, agreed not to actively campaign in either state.
Still, the states held votes, and Clinton won both states handily. When it came time for the DNC to rule on the delegates from those states, Clinton and Obama were running neck-and-neck. If the party agreed to seat all Michigan and Florida delegates, there would effectively be no consequence for violating the rules. But denying their delegates a vote at the convention would mean disenfranchising voters in those states. The party compromised and agreed to give delegates half a vote. That left Hillary a few dozen delegates shy of Obama's lead, despite holding a small lead in the popular vote. PUMAs howled.
Dozens of blogs popped up in the weeks that followed, perhaps none more prolific than The Confluence, by Kim Haas. Known to her readers as riverdaughter, Haas has continued to maintain the site for the last seven years.
“I was angry at the way the primary played out,” she says. In her view, critics of Obama and his campaign were unfairly branded as racists, a label that stung those who consider themselves progressive and open-minded.
She distrusted Obama and believed his candidacy was built on a Wall Street war chest. “I saw him as the person being bought by the financial services companies that thought he was going to be a weak president because he didn’t have the policy experience,” she says. “I was so mad at the party for cheating me of that feeling, that I could vote for the first African American president.” The 2008 election was the first and only time Haas voted for a Republican.
Haas says she toyed with the idea of a party switch, but she couldn’t square her deeply held beliefs with the Republican Party platform. “I’m not a conservative, I’m not a Republican, I don’t like what they stand for,” she says, citing social policies and the conservative push to radically cut the social safety net. In the 2012 presidential election, she voted her conscience, casting her ballot for former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, the candidate for the left-leaning Justice Party.
Says Haas: “I saw [Clinton’s] ad, and back in 2008 I would have really identified with the people in her ad. And now I just don’t anymore.” Seven years ago, Haas was working as a pharmaceutical researcher in New Jersey. Since then, thousands of pharmaceutical jobs have vanished, including hers. She relocated to the Pittsburgh area and is working a temp job until May, when that too will disappear.
She still supports Clinton, though. “I just don’t think any other candidate has that depth of experience and that passion for policy that I really appreciate,” Haas says. Her enthusiasm, which once could have been described as dogmatic, is now merely pedestrian. “I’m just exhausted. Personally I’m just exhausted, it’s really hard,” she says. “I wish her luck, I hope she wins.”
Bower, Goldman, and Haas are all watching the early days of Clinton’s 2016 campaign carefully, at a distance. Adrienne Wilson, who writes literary erotica under the nom de plume Valentine Bonnaire, has moved on entirely.
After the primaries, Wilson and many of her fellow PUMAs began openly supporting the McCain-Palin ticket, hoping a Republican win would give Clinton a window to run in 2012. But what was supposed to be a temporary flirtation with the GOP became a long-lasting political realignment.
“Just like Ronald Reagan did once, I am leaving the Democratic Party,” she wrote in a recent blog entry. “It has been a very hard choice for me. It’s the women in the party who were supposed to help Hillary in ‘08 and they did not.” Wilson instead is backing Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning Kentucky senator who announced his candidacy earlier this month.
For now, Clinton enjoys comfortable leads over all of her would-be Republican opponents. But her favorability numbers have fallen steadily in the last three years, and even Democratic voters are wary about a Clinton coronation. She will always have her fiercest supporters, ready to do battle with critics. They just might not be willing to come back to the party that jilted them.