2020

Bernie Sanders Just Got Boomered

To beat Joe Biden, he needs record numbers of young voters. They haven't been showing up.
March 4, 2020, 4:42pm
A child holding a Bernie sign.
A child at a Virginia Bernie Sanders rally. Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty

Bernie Sanders' "revolution" was always going to be an uphill slog. For all the talk about how Democrats were turning into socialists, heading into 2020 the party was still controlled by relative moderates, and it was arguably those moderates who mostly fueled Democrats' 2018 victories. Instead of trying to appeal to those more moderate, mostly older voters, Sanders doubled down on his left-wing views, emphasizing the need to defeat the establishment and putting Medicare for All—one of the most ambitious and controversial policy positions on the table—at the center of his campaign.

That refusal to compromise, to stop talking about the progressive causes he's always believed in, is in large part why so many young voters (of all races and genders) have filled his rallies, flooded early primary states to knock on doors for him, and made supporting him a central part of their online identities.

The problem is, there simply don't seem to be enough of those passionate young Sanders fans.

Exit polls from states that have voted in primaries and caucuses so far show that turnout among voters under 30 is pretty much flat compared to 2016, meaning the Sanders campaign wasn't able to get his most reliable supporters to the polls. As USA Today notes, in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, younger voters made up a smaller share of the electorate in 2016 than they did in 2020—and those young voters were less likely to support Sanders this year in those states. In a CNN Texas exit poll from 2016, voters under 30 made up 20 percent of the Democratic electorate and 59 percent of them backed Sanders; in a Washington Post exit poll from Tuesday, Sanders had the same level of youth support, but young Texans only made up 15 percent of the electorate, while voters over 65, who overwhelmingly backed Biden or Michael Bloomberg, were a full quarter of the Texas electorate. (Joe Biden beat Sanders in all of these states.)

Overall, turnout in the Democratic primaries and caucuses has been good, not great, and though political scientists warn not to draw conclusions about the general elections from those numbers, Sanders' whole candidacy is premised in part on activating young people, people of color and others who are generally not involved in politics. That just hasn't really been happening, though not for lack of trying on Sanders' part. Meanwhile, the two states where turnout really did shoot up from 2016, Virginia and South Carolina, were major victories for Biden.

So does Sanders not have the right message to appeal to those young non-voters? Is the membrane of cynicism and apathy too thick for even a rhetorically revolutionary campaign to penetrate? Are states making it too difficult for young people to vote, putting Sanders at a disadvantage? Whatever the explanation, his campaign doesn't have time to figure it out. The Florida primary, where 248 delegates are at stake, is in two weeks and will feature a lot of older Democratic voters who might break extremely hard for Biden now that Bloomberg has dropped out.

Progressives hoping to transform the Democratic Party whoever wins in November will have more of an opportunity to figure out why the passion around Sanders hasn't led to a corresponding uptick in turnout. The grimmest possible answer is that there's no way to transform a political party or a country if you rely on young people. In other words, true change will only come when the old people are all dead.

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