LOS ANGELES — It is one of the most consistent, and counterintuitive, facts behind Bernie Sanders’ four-year march from insurgent presidential contender to front-runner: The oldest candidate in the Democratic field owes his success to the youngest voters in the party.
Sanders, 78, with a surly resting face and a disheveled halo of thinning white hair, may seem like an unorthodox choice for voters several generations removed. But with his defiance for convention and decades-long crusade for revolution, Sanders is uncommonly in sync with the political sensibilities of younger Americans hungry for sweeping action on climate change, student debt and health care.
For younger voters, their formative years have primed them to embrace more radical politics. The warnings they hear from scientists about the consequence of climate change have become increasingly dire. The frequent school shootings that have made lockdown drills a normal part of life have prompted students to call for more government regulation on guns. The Great Recession — which hammered millennials as they entered the job market while Generation Z watched their parents weather the downturn — instilled a deep skepticism about Wall Street and, more broadly, the country’s economic structures.
Angry is good
Sanders may come across as angry. But young voters consider the problems at hand and figure, why shouldn’t he be?
“You have people that actually criticize him for being so passionate and yelling at you,” said Norma Sandoval, a UCLA graduate student in molecular biology. “But you see that he truly does want what’s best for the majority of the people.”
Ideological affinity, coupled with a head start on youth organizing from his 2016 campaign, has made the Vermont senator a formidable favorite among millennial and Generation Z voters. Sanders won approximately half of voters under 30 in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, a research organization at Tufts University, and two-thirds of younger voters in Nevada.
Young vs. old
“If anyone is going to try and dig into his lead, they’re going to have to go through the youth vote,” said Ben Wessel, executive director of NextGen America, an advocacy group focused on youth turnout.
Sanders, for his part, has made young people central to his path to victory, arguing that only a candidate that inspires turnout from new and infrequent voters can win the White House. But there has not been an overwhelming surge in turnout in the first three nominating contests.
“We’re not seeing some crazy overwhelming storming of the polls by Bernie-stans,” Wessel said, using the internet parlance of fandom. But, he noted, the candidates who have performed best with young voters — Sanders, followed by Pete Buttigieg — are the ones leading the delegate chase. “It’s young vs. old right now in this primary … and right now the youngs are winning.”
Setting the bar
For many Democrats desperate to beat President Trump, their paramount concern has been who has the best general election prospects — a calculus that has been difficult to pin down in a volatile political landscape.
Young voters, however, are less preoccupied with electability. A poll commissioned last year by the Alliance for Youth Justice found that by a 2 to 1 margin, respondents under age 34 said the 2020 presidential election should be about “bold policy change” instead of focusing narrowly on kicking Trump out of office.
“No kidding, we want to defeat Donald Trump,” said Sarah Audelo, executive director of the group. “But that is a really low bar for the type of country we’re trying to create.”
Sanders’ platform of “Medicare for all” and sharply reducing costs for higher education resonates with Justin Alvarez, 20, a diabetic who worries about juggling the expenses of insulin, rent and tuition.
“Bernie is the only one I can really rely on and trust to take on the pharmaceutical companies that jack these prices way up,” said Alvarez, who leads a Students for Bernie group at Santa Monica College.
Socialist, so what?
Younger voters tend to be more progressive than their older counterparts, and are more likely to hold positive views of socialism, a boon for Sanders, who proudly labels himself a democratic socialist. But John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, cautioned against reducing youth support for Sanders to just a desire for free stuff.
“Sanders is supported by millions of young people despite the socialist label,” Della Volpe said. “He’s painting a picture of an America that is inclusive. It’s fair, it’s respectful, it’s where neighbors help neighbors.”
The frustration Sanders and his supporters share is so galvanizing that some have jumped from activism into running for office themselves. Elizabeth Alcantar, 26, didn’t think her representatives on the Cudahy City Council were sufficiently responsive, so she ran in 2018, inspired in part by Sanders’ first presidential bid. She won and now serves as mayor.
“Bernie not only gives us his vision for the country,” she said, “but it’s something that we share.”
Sanders’ polling numbers with the younger demographic bounced around during the spring and summer of last year, as voters considered other candidates in the crowded Democratic field.
“They didn’t just stick with him in the beginning,” said Ben Tulchin, Sanders’ campaign pollster. “They shopped around. We had to earn their support back.”
The Sanders team projects confidence that the youth vote has come home for good. Now, they’ve got to make sure they come to the polls.
“The first challenge is to persuade people they should support you. The other challenge is making sure they show up at the right time to vote,” said Jeff Weaver, a Sanders senior campaign strategist. “Younger people don’t have as long a voting history.”