WASHINGTON — Young people were told if they’d only show up to vote, they could change America. Well, they did show up at the polls on Tuesday — but so did a lot of Boomers and Gen Xers.
In a Democratic presidential primary election that saw turnout up across the board, the voices of young people were drowned out by higher voter participation among older Americans, even as young people did vote in greater numbers than they did in prior years.
That helps tell the story of why, even though young voters overwhelmingly chose Sen. Bernie Sanders, it wasn’t enough to carry the Vermont Independent to victory over former Vice President Joe Biden in Tuesday’s critical elections.
“While Joe Biden continues to do very well with older Americans, especially those people over 65, our campaign continues to win the vast majority of the votes of younger people,” Sanders said Tuesday, speaking in Burlington, Vermont. “The younger generations of this country continue in very strong numbers to support our campaign.”
Unfortunately for Sanders, the situation this week is largely the same as it was on Super Tuesday, when he won the youth vote in every state but lost most of the contests. The campaign, as he admitted then, simply overestimated its power to bring masses of those young voters to the polls, and they’ve sometimes made up a smaller share of the electorate.
“There’s no question that we’re not seeing some crazy storming of the polls by some army of young Bernie supporters,” said Ben Wessel, executive director of NextGen America, a nonprofit political action committee that focuses on young people. “But I think the dunking on ‘Kids don't vote,’ that we're seeing all over the internet, it's kind of oversimplifying what's actually happening.”
A look at college towns across the country begins to paint the picture. A good example is Washtenaw County, which includes Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan is located.
Michigan saw one of the highest turnouts for a presidential primary in the state’s history, on the strength of expanded same-day and absentee voter rules — especially notable since only one party held a competitive primary this year. In just the Democratic primary, nearly 1.6 million people voted on Tuesday, as opposed to just under 1.2 million votes in the 2016 primary.
In Washtenaw County alone, turnout increased by almost 50% from about 69,000 voters in 2016 to more than 102,000.
Conventional wisdom would hold this high turnout in a college town is good news for Sanders, but he lost every county in the state, including this one, where in 2016 he beat Hillary Clinton 55.4% to 43.7%. This year, Washtenaw swung to Biden, who won the region with 47.6% of the vote compared to Sanders’ 45%.
“There just wasn't enough turnout in young people,” said Branden Snyder, executive director of a community organization called Detroit Action, which endorsed Sanders. “White and black and Latinx went out overwhelmingly, 40 [years old] and under, for Sanders, but just not enough of them to slow down the progress of Boomers.”
Digging even deeper into the numbers, it’s safe to assume young people around the University of Michigan turned out at a record clip. But so did older voters, leaving young people relatively underrepresented as a portion of the electorate. That tracks with what some exit polls have shown (though exit polls are generally unreliable and especially hard to compare to prior years because the methodology has been adjusted since then).
Take, for instance, voters who cast ballots at the University of Michigan’s student union. Turnout surged from 18% of registered voters in 2016 to 31% in 2020. Though the numbers have not been fully unpacked yet, that probably amounts to a lot of student votes.
But turnout was probably up among people closer to the age of their professors, too — and with voters over the age of 45 skewing heavily toward Biden, that spelled bad news for Sanders.
In the family neighborhoods surrounding the University of Michigan, where higher numbers of older voters live, turnout increased in some cases to more than 55%, dulling the impact of a youth vote increase. In Wines, a neighborhood in the city’s northwestern side, for instance, voter participation grew from 47.5% to 55.6%. In the westside family neighborhood of Dicken, voting was up from 52% to to 55%.
The same dynamic played out in college towns across the country on Tuesday. Sanders lost Missouri to Clinton in 2016 by only 0.2%, but got blown out by Biden this year 60.1% to 34.6%.
In Boone County, which includes the University of Missouri, Biden beat Sanders 50.5% to 44.9%, a far cry from Sanders’ 2016 victory there at 60.6% to 38.7% over Clinton. That’s despite more than twice as many Democratic votes being cast in the county this year than in 2016.
Similarly, Sanders won Idaho in 2016 but lost the state to Biden on Tuesday. The state Democratic Party ran caucuses last election and a primary this year, so the raw results aren’t comparable. But Ada County, which includes Boise State University, tipped narrowly for Biden this year compared to an absolute rout for Bernie over Clinton in 2016.
The results have left progressives clawing for a silver lining. During a late-night Instagram Live session, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told viewers that although it is hard to “sugarcoat” the loss, she’s optimistic about the future.
“While people say, ‘Okay, well, it fell short tonight, young people don't vote, it doesn't matter,’ as I'm seeing here, it does matter for the time to come,” she said. “It seems like our generation has a streak of progressivism in it and it doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.”
That’s the same message University of Michigan professor Edie Goldenberg is delivering to her students on Wednesday. She founded a group that aims to increase youth voter turnout, and said those who supported Sanders shouldn’t feel dejected because showing up in large numbers will force the Biden campaign to address their concerns or risk losing them in the general election.
“I actually think that having their voices heard has been very important and consequential,” she said. “They have to understand that voting is immediately, short term concerned with who's going to win, but long term, it is an expression of concern and interest and support.”
Cover: Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., take a selfie as they wait for the candidate to show up at a rally Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)