- Sen. Bernie Sanders has commanding support among young voters compared to any other candidate running for president in 2020, but how could it move the needle?
- While voters under the age of 30 tend to be among the least reliable to turn up to the polls, then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign showed how they can put wins on the board for the right candidate.
- Historically, young voters are most likely to get out and vote in general elections, compared to primaries and midterms.
- Sanders has had a mixed record so far this primary cycle in boosting turnout, but if he does manage to bring young voters out in droves come November, they could be met by just as many alarmed Trump voters.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
At Bernie Sanders’ most crowded rallies, teeming with young people, introductory speakers from Cornell West to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez make sure to remind everyone to actually show up and vote.
The US Senator from Vermont, 78, has a commanding lead in polling among voters under 30.
He has hip surrogates like Killer Mike and Sarah Silverman stumping for him, and he even finds himself thanking bands like Soccer Mommy for playing free concerts at his events.
But for all of the enthusiasm in-real-life and online, Sanders has a two-fold problem with young voters.
First, he’s had mixed results boosting turnout and delivering on his promise of a “political revolution” that will flood polling places with new voters to carry his campaign over the finish line.
The high point for the Sanders campaign was in New Hampshire, which saw its highest turnout ever for a Democratic primary — although the numbers get complicated with a growing voting population and the ability of independents to vote in either party’s primary in the Granite State. College towns like Keene, Durham, and Hanover saw a spike in turnout despite confusing new voting laws affecting students.
That 2008 benchmark looms large over the Sanders campaign given the party’s nostalgia for the Obama coalition, but all indications point to 2020 being a different beast not just for young voters, but across the electorate with both sides loathing the other enough to potentially turn out in droves.
What gets the youth to the voting booth
When it comes to Millennial and Gen-Z voters, a deep cynicism toward the financial system and political institutions is the foundation of the political outlook for many, according to Elizabeth Bishop, Ph.D., a professor of youth studies at the City University of New York and director of curriculum & outcomes for Global Kids.
“A lot of young voters came of age at a time when the interests of deregulated capital were put ahead of the interests of the voting public,” Bishop told Insider in an email. “… This was only reinforced by decisions like Citizens United, which put the personhood of corporate entities ahead of the interests of the people who make up the electorate.”
Bishop said her research points to strong turnout among voters under 30 in 2020, particularly among those who have felt targeted by the Trump administration because of their race, gender, or other identities.
She described young women voters as being “shot out of a cannon to show up at the polls in light of the harrowing, if empowering, #MeToo moment and the demonization of sexual assault survivors from an old guard of political elites.”
“There is a real sense of outrage and concurrent mobilization that I believe will result in young voters showing up to the polls,” Bishop wrote.
However, many of the same barriers that have kept young voters from coming to the polls in the past remain in place.
Beyond voting laws deemed by watchdogs to be disproportionately suppressing the vote of racial and ethnic minorities, Bishop cited some age-specific factors that can make the youth vote tough to depend upon.
“On a logistical level, there are difficulties with registration, especially as the cost of housing and lack of property ownership means that Millennials frequently change addresses and must re-register each time,” Bishop wrote. “There is a lack of access to polls, including a systematic barrier to access in states like New York that have closed primaries, meaning that voters unaffiliated with one of the two major parties are essentially barred from participating in the primaries.
“Then there is a lack of time off from work to get to polling stations,” she continued, “or extremely long lines to vote at polls.”
For Sanders, Bishop outlined a number of reasons why his candidacy hits the sweet spot for Millennial and Gen-Z voters based on their economic and social justice outlooks. Along with the overall trends offering plenty of reasons for young people to vote in 2020, Bishop said the spurt of Sanders voters could represent something bigger.
“There is a sea change,” Bishop wrote. “I think we will continue to see a shift as more politicians run for office who do represent the interests of Millennials (climate change, student debt, criminal justice reform, health care, living wages, mental health, and wellness).”
A landmark 2018 study by Andrew Hall, a political scientist at Stanford University, could spell trouble for those hoping Sanders can ride a wave of youth support to the Oval Office.
Because of his more extreme ideology perceived among voters, Sanders falls into Hall’s model of the kind of candidate who can drive turnout on the other side.
In Hall’s analysis, more moderate candidates in American elections tend to see turnout somewhat diminished in the opposing party.
Conversely, in the case of a candidate like Sanders, the more threatening they’re seen by the opposing party, the more likely they are to drive their base to the polls.
A recent Vox analysis determined that Sanders would need at least an 11 point spike in turnout among young voters in order to stay ahead of a likely bump across all age groups in 2020.
Getting young people to vote is hard enough as it is, Bishop points out, particularly if they feel like their vote doesn’t count or it is too burdensome to get their ducks in a row to register.
“Counteracting the resultant detachment takes a ton of work,” she wrote.